Prior to the season, Festus Ezeli said he planned to be more of a presence offensively.
Through seven games, the 6-foot-11 center for Vanderbilt has indeed done that. He is averaging 11.6 points, including 14 on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting night from the field in the Commodores’ 82-62 victory over Western Kentucky at Memorial Gym on Wednesday night.
Still, that wasn’t the statistic that stood out to Ezeli.
“I only had three rebounds and I had zero in the second half. (Coach Kevin Stallings) made sure to let me know after the game,” he said. “I need to do better, especially in that because that is what I bring to the team – is rebounding and defense. I’ll be better the next game.”
Ezeli wasn’t the only Commodore who was a little off on Wednesday. Vanderbilt (6-1) turned the ball over 23 times – the most since 24 turnovers against Missouri nearly a year ago.
“Twenty-three turnovers – that’s ridiculous,” Stallings said. “But we were really good defensively, especially in the first half.”
The Commodores led 35-17 at halftime, giving up the fewest opponents in a first half since allowing just 17 against Middle Tennessee State on Nov. 24, 2008. Western Kentucky (3-4) was just 8-of-28 (28.6 percent) from the field in the first half and committed 16 of its 22 turnovers before halftime.
In a rematch from last year – Western Kentucky won 76-69 – both teams looked sloppy. Vanderbilt never trailed and the score was stuck at 12-6 through the first 10 minutes. The Commodores then started to pull away, going on a 23-7 run to take a 35-13 lead with 1:11 to go in the first half.
The Hilltoppers, who were picked to finish first in the Sun Belt’s East division, trimmed the lead to 39-26 with 17:13 remaining and had a chance to cut it to 11. But on a fastbreak opportunity, Vanderbilt’s Andre Walker slapped the ball away from Juan Pattillo. Walker then sent a long pass down to the other end to John Jenkins, who laid it in for an easy bucket. Jenkins then sunk a 3-pointer on the next possession and the lead was quickly back to 18.
It was Walker’s lone steal but he finished with a career-high eight assists and just two turnovers in only 21 minutes.
“He is steady. He is just steady and that is why he plays,” Stallings said. “He does a lot of things right and we can count on him. A lot of times I don’t want to take him out but I just feel like I need to.”
Jenkins led the team with 21 points and five 3-pointers. Jeffery Taylor had 13 and reserve Rod Odom added 11. For Western Kentucky, Pattillo had 18 points and Sergio Kerusch and Caden Dickerson each had 12.
The Hilltoppers nearly won the rebounding battle, but it went 34-32 in favor of Vanderbilt. Western Kentucky grabbed 11 offensive rebounds and had 15 second-chance points.
Ezeli didn’t use his big frame enough, far off from his eight-rebound average. So while his scoring production was helpful to the Commodores, his night only received an “OK” from Stallings.
“Maybe I had no right, but I just thought he was OK and that means he has gotten a lot better,” Stallings said. “He didn’t guard the ball. He should have had two or three balls he should have blocked. He should have had about five that he should have rebounded and I love him. There is not a bigger-hearted better guy in that locker room. I am absolutely in love with that kid. But he is a lot better than he played tonight.”
• Taylor was just of 4-of-13 from the field and 1-of-4 from 3-point range.
He was 1-of-8 against Appalachian State on Saturday and is shooting just 45 percent (27-of-59) this season.
“He is just pressing,” Stallings said. “He is putting too much pressure on himself. Fortunately we are winning in spite of it. As soon as he relaxes and lets the game come to him then he is going to be really, really hard for people to play.”
• Tampa Bay Rays pitcher and former Vanderbilt standout David Price was in the stands for Wednesday’s game. Price, a Murfreesboro native, finished second in the voting for the AL Cy Young Award. He compiled a 19-6 record with a 2.72 ERA.
• No. 18 Florida fell to Conference USA’s Central Florida 57-54 Wednesday night, becoming the latest Southeastern Conference team to fall to a non-BCS school.
Of the 12 teams in the SEC, eight have lost games to teams outside of the Big Six power conferences, which include Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, SEC, Pac-10 and ACC.
On Tuesday, Mississippi State lost its first game to visiting Florida Atlantic, of the Sun Belt Conference. The Atlantic Sun’s Campbell and Jacksonville both knocked off Auburn.
Tennessee (6-0) is the only undefeated team in the SEC.