Kyle Fuller never got off the bench during last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Thursday, he entered the game early and quickly made the case to stay on the floor.
Vanderbilt’s backup point guard scored 19 points and drained a huge 3-pointer late in a 75-72 victory over Arkansas in the second round of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
“He played his fanny off. He was awesome,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “He hit a big shot in the corner in the second half. He got us going in the first half. We need him to play well. We’re playing eight guys basically and we can’t afford to have two or three guys have off nights. We’re not good enough to absorb that. He was probably the difference in the game for us.”
The Commodores (15-16) now get a third shot at No. 2 seed Kentucky in a quarterfinal Friday (6:30 p.m., ESPNU). Vanderbilt, the 10th seed, lost the previous two meetings by a total of six points.
The only time Fuller scored more was when he had a career-high 25 against Xavier in December.
He didn’t play in any of the SEC Tournament last year as the Commodores raced to their first championship in 61 years, knocking off No. 1 Kentucky in the final. But he knew this night would be different when he saw his younger brother, Khalil, on Wednesday night for the first time in eight months. So did his teammates.
“I’ve lived with Kyle for the last two, three years and one thing I know about Kyle is whenever his family is in town he plays well,” forward Rod Odom said. “When I saw his mom walk through the door I knew he would be good [Thursday].”
Shortly after subbing in less than four minutes after tip-off, Fuller let loose. On consecutive possessions, he fired off a 3-pointer and came up with a steal. His driving layup, which he finished with his left hand, gave the Commodores the lead for good with 12:53 left in the first half. He immediately followed with another 3-pointer and by halftime he had 12 points and had guided the Commodores to a 38-30 lead.
“I didn’t really think about last year; I was just coming in here knowing I could play,” said Fuller, who played 28 minutes. “I know I am a good player. I just needed to contribute the best way I could. To see my brother in the stands and my mom, who I haven’t seen in so long, kind of lifted my spirit.”
His last 3-pointer helped lift the Commodores to their seventh victory in 10 games.
Vanderbilt led by 16 midway through the second half. But No. 7 seed Arkansas (19-13) slowly climbed back into it thanks to the Commodores’ eight second-half turnovers and errant free-throw shooting.
With the lead down to six, Vanderbilt passed the ball around on the perimeter before it finally landed in the hands of Fuller. He squared up for his career-tying third 3-pointer in the corner to push the lead to 70-61 with 3:05 left.
The Razorbacks did make it interesting, though, scoring seven straight points. Marshawn Powell had a chance to tie with 29 seconds left. But he was so deep in the paint that his shot bounced off the bottom of the backboard.
Starting point guard Kedren Johnson then bailed out the Commodores with four free throws in the final 20 seconds. His shots at the foul line came after Odom missed three straight.
Odom led all scorers with a career-tying 20 points and made a personal-best five 3-pointers. But he made just 3-of-11 free throws. Johnson finished with 13 points and Dai-Jon Parker chipped in 11 points. B.J. Young led Arkansas with 16 points.
Fuller, a junior from Moreno Valley, Calif., mustered just 12 points in Vanderbilt’s first two games against Arkansas. In fact, in the five games leading up to this year’s tournament, he scored a total of 11.
But in his first SEC Tournament game since his freshman, he needed less than 20 minutes to top that.
“Kyle didn’t play in the SEC Tournament last year so he could've played all 40 minutes and he would've been real happy,” Stallings said. “[Former Purdue coach] Gene Keady told me a long time ago your best players aren’t always your best players on game night. Your challenge as a coach is to find your best players on game night. Kyle, at least in the first half, was our best player.”
• No. 6 Missouri 62, No. 11 Texas A&M 50: Playing in their first SEC Tournament game, the Tigers cruised by their former Big 12 foe in the day's final contest.
Alex Oriakhi led four players in double figures with 13 points and 10 rebounds as Missouri (23-9) avenged a loss in College Station, Texas in February. The Tigers never trailed and led by as many as 21 in the second half.
Texas A&M (18-15), playing in its second game in as many days, shot just 24.1 percent. Faybon Harris led all scorers with 15 points.
Missouri advances to play No. 3 seed Ole Miss (23-8) in a quarterfinal Friday (9 p.m., SEC Network). The teams split the regular-season series as both teams won at home.