MURFREESBORO — Pardon John Jenkins for being a little emotional but this was a first — a very important first to him.
Jenkins, now a sophomore guard at Vanderbilt, was playing in his first game at the Murphy Center when the Commodores defeated MTSU 72-53 on Tuesday night.
Of course all of his teammates were new to the venue as well. The Commodores hadn’t played at MTSU since the 1994-95 season.
But for Jenkins, Murphy Center was a place that always been out of his reach.
During his four years as a standout at Station Camp, Jenkins and the Bison never reached the state championship game, held annually on MTSU’s campus. He had been down to watch and twice accepted Class AA Mr. Basketball awards at the arena.
But he had never played a game there, and Tuesday he wanted to take advantage.
So when Jenkins scored nine points in less than a minute to give the Commodores a 13-point lead toward the end of the first half, he expressed his feelings. He screamed. He delivered hard high-fives. He clinched his fist. He screamed again.
“I had to tell myself to calm down. I was like ‘John, you’ve got to calm down,’” Jenkins said. “It happens sometimes. I felt like I was in high school again. It was just one of those feelings.”
Jenkins scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half, and a late first-half surge turned the momentum in Vanderbilt’s favor.
Middle Tennessee State’s Kerry Hammonds sunk a 3-pointer to cut Vanderbilt’s lead to 30-24 with 1:53 to go.
Then Jenkins took over. On the next possession, he missed a 3-pointer but got his own rebound. He stepped back in the corner and this time drilled a trey. He then picked off a MTSU pass, raced down the court for a layup and drew a foul. He made the free throw and, seconds later after a Blue Raiders' basket, he made another 3-pointer at the top of the key for a 39-26 Vanderbilt lead with 38.8 seconds left before halftime.
“John went off and it really stole the momentum away from the game,” Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor said.
MTSU, which is 4-8 and on a four-game losing streak, trimmed the lead to eight points five minutes into the second half. Vanderbilt (9-2) responded with a 9-0 run, fueled by five free throws.
The Commodores were 24-of-36 from the free-throw line while MTSU was just 8-of-14. Vanderbilt’s 6-11 center Festus Ezeli went to the free-throw line 12 times — he made five — and was a target of many Commodore passes inside.
“People have really been struggling with Fes,” Taylor said. “He is so big and he has great hands inside. The game plan was basically if they were going to play us man, throw it into Fes and swing it around on the perimeter, drive mistakes and basically get to the foul line.”
Taylor finished with a game-high 18 points, Ezeli finished with 15 and Brad Tinsley had 10. For MTSU, Jason Jones had 15 and James Washington scored 10 points.