Vanderbilt expected Middle Tennessee State to turn up the pressure in the backcourt.
So the Commodores turned to their ace in the paint — and Festus Ezeli didn’t disappoint.
Vanderbilt’s big man unleashed his best offensive performance of the season, scoring a season-high 21 points and making a career-high 11 free throws as the Commodores outlasted MTSU for an 84-77 victory on Saturday in front of a sellout crowd of 14,316 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“He delivered,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “No disrespect to anybody else, he was the best player on the floor today, I thought.”
Ezeli’s last bucket on a nice, one-handed pass from Brad Tinsley with 40 seconds left gave Vanderbilt an insurmountable 80-76 lead. It was enough to propel the Commodores (16-5) to their 10th win in 11 games. The loss ended a 12-game winning streak for Middle Tennessee (20-3), who led by eight points midway through the first half.
“Their veteran attitude, their confidence, and their experience kicked in,” MTSU guard Bruce Massey said. “They made plays down the stretch that we’re not really used to being in these types of games.”
Ezeli played in his ninth straight game after missing 10 due to knee injuries. The 6-foot-11 center matched up against MTSU’s formidable post player, LaRon Dendy, an Iowa State transfer who scored a team-high 22 points.
Ezeli threw his 255 pounds around, shooting 5-of-8 from the field, getting many baskets on high-low looks from his guards.
“Every game I’m in, I’m just a little better,” said Ezeli, who scored 13 points in the first half. “I’m just trying to slow the game down. They’ve been seeing it in practices. Coach [Stallings] has been seeing that I have been getting better on offense. So they kind of emphasize it a little bit, and, yeah, we took advantage of that.”
When the defense collapsed to suffocate him, more often than not he drew contact. He was more than ready to go to the free-throw line.
He entered the game as a 51.1 percent free-throw shooter this season. So on Friday, he hit the gym and made 100 free throws on 123 attempts.
It paid off, as he made his first seven attempts against MTSU and sank 11-of-13.
“I [made] 100 [on Friday] and I had to text Coach how many I made,” Ezeli said. “I’ve been in the gym ... and I kind of changed up my form a little bit too.”
Dendy, at 6-foot-9, 235 pounds, more than held his own as he was 8-of-11 from the field. Often bringing Ezeli out of the paint, he used ball fakes and post moves to make tough, contested shots inside.
He missed nearly the last five minutes of the first half due to an injury. With 4:59 left, he received an inadvertent elbow as he guarded Jeffery Taylor, who scored on an inbounds lob. Dendy returned with a band-aid over his left eye — no stitches needed — and scored 15 points after halftime.
“He’s very good,” Ezeli said. “He’s just skilled. He takes it off the bounce, so it was a little different than the other guys I’ve had to guard where I usually just have to be physical in the post. It was tough guarding him.”
Ezeli wasn’t alone as MTSU made it hard on Vanderbilt, which twice switched away from its man-to-man defense to zone.
In a game that featured 10 ties and eight lead changes, Vanderbilt rallied from an eight-point deficit early in the first half to lead by five at halftime.
The Blue Raiders shot 57.4 percent and stuck around, jumping ahead by five midway through the second half. They took their last lead, 75-74, when Kerry Hammonds sank a 3-pointer over a leaping John Jenkins with 3:29 left.
A minute later Jenkins scored on back-to-back possessions. Jenkins, who led all scorers with 26 points, made the go-ahead layup by slashing inside with his right hand. With 1:45 left, he received a nice feed from Tinsley. The ball was deflected but Jenkins scooped it up and laid it in for a 78-76 lead.
After good man-to-man defensive pressure, especially by freshman guard Dai-Jon Parker, the Commodores forced a turnover. This set up Ezeli’s final bucket, which he made wide open as Dendy was late in switching over.
“When Kevin [Stallings] and I agreed to this game in January, I wish we'd have done it when [Ezeli] was hurt,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “He played just like that at our place. When he plays like that, it just gives them such a weapon. Now you have to double him. They’ve got so many offensive players around him, and they did a great job, spread the floor and got it to the right spots so he could score.”
• Eight players scored in double figures — four on each team.
Along with Ezeli and Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor scored 17 points. Lance Goulbourne added 11 and was the game’s leading rebounder with eight.
JT Sulton, who fouled out with 4:09 left, scored 12 points. Massey and Marcos Knight each scored 10.
• Tinsley committed four fouls for just the third time in his career and the first time since Jan. 30, 2010, against Kentucky. He picked up his fourth foul against MTSU with 15:32 remaining.
Stallings rotated him in and out down the stretch, saving him for offensive possessions. It paid off as Tinsley not only made two free throws with 29.8 left for a five-point lead but half of his four assists came in the last two minutes.
“He is, obviously, a real steadying influence for our team,” Stallings said. “He has been around for a long time and had that ball in his hands a lot.”
• The Blue Raiders fall to 4-29 in the all-time series against Vanderbilt. They have lost five straight, with their last win coming in 1995. MTSU has never won at Memorial Gymnasium in 16 tries.