John Jenkins insists the coaching staff’s calls for better defense don’t fall on deaf ears.
“We want to be great so we listen to everything,” Vanderbilt's leading scorer said. “As players, we’ve been rallying together and saying we want to be the best defensive team we can be.”
On Saturday, the Commodores manned up — literally — and provided a defensive performance for the record books in a 65-35 victory against Auburn at Memorial Gymnasium in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
It was the fewest points Vanderbilt (11-4, 1-0) allowed since the pre-shot clock era. It allowed 33 in a two-point loss to Mississippi State on Jan. 30, 1982.
In the previous six games, the Commodores gave up more points in the second half than in the first. That statistic didn’t get by head coach Kevin Stallings, who harped on the lapses.
Against Auburn, playing mainly man-to-man defense, they allowed just 16 points after halftime. The Tigers (10-5, 0-1) shot just 27.1 percent for the game, the lowest by a Vanderbilt opponent this season.
“That is probably our best second-half defensive performance for sure and maybe our best overall defensive performance,” said Stallings, whose team is riding a season-high five-game winning streak. “Our defensive attention to the report and the plan to how we needed to play some of those guys was outstanding. It was a good day.”
The Commodores separated themselves early in the first half with a 17-5 run. Jenkins began the spurt by draining a 3-pointer at the top of the key after a ball fake got two Auburn defenders in the air. Dai-Jon Parker and Brad Tinsley followed with back-to-back 3-pointers.
Tinsley scored eight straight points, driving in for a layup and then sunk a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. Jeffery Taylor capped off the stretch with another trey to give Vanderbilt a commanding 30-11 lead with 7:24 remaining.
“Brad was very aggressive at the beginning of the game and that is what we need,” Stallings said. “He certainly looked like he was shot out of a canon at the start of the game.”
Tinsley finished with 12 points and six assists. Jenkins scored a game-high 17 points on five 3-pointers and Taylor added 16 points.
Auburn, which has lost six straight to Vanderbilt, didn’t have anyone score in double figures. Chris Denson was the team leader with seven points.
“We had a lot of open looks,” Auburn forward Kenny Gabriel said. “We just missed them all.”
The Tigers’ top two scorers, Gabriel (12.6 ppg) and Frankie Sullivan (12.2 ppg), combined for four points on 2-of-11 shooting. Gabriel picked up two fouls less than 90 seconds in and had just two points, not making his first basket until 7:29 to go.
Stallings said getting both Gabriel and Sullivan into quick foul trouble “changed the overall complexion of the game.” From there, his strongest defenders — Taylor and Lance Goulbourne — made sure Auburn’s duo wouldn’t get going.
“It was about making all of their shots hard,” Stallings said. “Our entire defense played well. When [center] Festus [Ezeli] comes into the mix, it gives us three guys we think are outstanding defenders, so we look better defensively.”
• Ezeli made just his second start in his fifth game of the season. He scored four points, on 1-of-4 shooting but grabbed a season-high eight rebounds and blocked two shots.
• The Commodores entered averaging 11.3 3-pointers over their last three games, shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc during that span.
They were 13-of-29 against Ole Miss and nine of their 12 baskets in the first half were 3-pointers.
• The 30-point difference marked Vanderbilt’s largest margin of victory in an SEC game since a 93-52 victory against Kentucky on Feb. 12, 2008.
• One of the few negatives was free throw shooting. The Commodores were just 8-of-16 from the line, one game removed from shooting a season-high 88.2 percent (15-of-17) against Miami.
Vanderbilt entered the game making 68.4 percent of its free throws.
“I’m not sure if it was because they were amped up for the start of SEC play or what,” Stallings said. “It’s disappointing to have it go like that. It is hard to fathom a situation where you could be shooting better from the 3 than from the foul line, and that’s what happened to us in the first half.”