Midway through Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt, Belmont coach Rick Byrd started to think about the rest of his weekend plans.
It wasn’t necessarily because his Bruins were being outplayed by Vanderbilt. Quite the contrary, in fact, Belmont led at halftime before it fell 85-76 in front of 13,902 at Memorial Gym.
No, Byrd was just trying to get through the fact his best friend, Kevin Stallings, was on the other sideline, coaching the Commodores. In that regard, there wouldn’t be a clear winner regardless of the outcome.
“I was sitting there during the game at times, thinking I’m going to get to go to Belmont’s Christmas show tonight. It is really good,” Byrd said. “If I can just get to 3 o’clock, it is going to be over and I get to go look forward to that. ... I’m glad for Kevin that he won. This is a tough game for us. He doesn’t have to play us. I thank him for that and I thank for Vanderbilt for that. It is not easy for us individually.”
Behind Festus Ezeli’s career-high 24 points and 10 rebounds, Vanderbilt (7-1) won its fifth straight and improved to 4-0 in the series against Belmont. It was the first time the two schools met since 2003.
It was a special day for Ezeli, whose parents were in town. His mother, Patricia, flew in from California and his father, Festus Sr., made the trip from his native country of Nigeria. It was just the second time his parents have seen him play at Vanderbilt.
“I will remember this for a long time,” Ezeli said.
Added Stallings: “I was happy because that is a long trek for them and they were here to see him play probably the best game he has ever played for us.”
The 6-foot-11 Ezeli was the difference, especially in the second half when he scored 17 points. He also drew a lot of contact and was 10-of-14 from the free-throw line — an area the redshirt junior often has worked on during his time at Vanderbilt.
A.J. Oilvy (Feb. 5, 2009, against Alabama) was the last Commodore with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in a game.
“In a year’s time, he has made about as a dramatic of an improvement,” Byrd said of Ezeli. “I know A.J. was a great player and a great talent, but I think they are better with [Ezeli] as their [post] man. I think they are better defensively. I think they are a better rebounding team. Frankly, he is tougher about getting deeper position.”
Belmont (5-2) led by seven points on four occasions in the first half, the last time coming after a 3-pointer by Jordan Campbell with 1:56 left in the first half. Vanderbilt cut in the lead, though, trailing just 35-32 at halftime.
The Commodores appeared rejuvenated after the break. They scored the first six points and went on a 15-5 run to open the half. Rod Odom’s 3-pointer built the lead to 47-40 with 15:28 remaining.
The Bruins made just one field goal through the first six minutes of the second half.
“They came out, they pressured a lot defensively and we had some maybe dumb turnovers,” Belmont center Mick Hedgepeth said. “We just didn’t make it happen.”
The Bruins had 15 turnovers, five fewer than Vanderbilt which committed 23 against Western Kentucky on Wednesday.
Some of the Commodores' mistakes in this one were due to Belmont’s full-court pressure, which the Bruins used at times in the second half.
Belmont pulled it to 57-53 with 9:43 to go but Vanderbilt stayed one step ahead as it pushed the lead back to eight just three minutes later thanks to four straight points by Ezeli.
The Commodores grabbed their largest lead — 73-60 — with 3:04 left and were up by nine with 70 seconds left. But four quick points from the Bruins trimmed the deficit to 79-74 with 56 seconds to go.
Lance Goulbourne squashed the thought of a rally, though. The Vanderbilt forward converted a three-point play, making a free throw after getting fouled on a dunk.
Goulbourne finished with 15 points. Jeffery Taylor had 16, Brad Tinsley added 14 and John Jenkins scored 10. For Belmont, Hedgepeth scored 16 points, Kerron Johnson had 13 and Campbell added 13.
The loss snapped a five-game winning streak for the Bruins. Their previous loss was their season-opener against Tennessee, which is now ranked 13th by the AP. They had a chance to tie that one in the last minute as well.
Like Tennessee, Vanderbilt avoided being upset and that left Stallings with a smile on his face. Well the win helped, but the fact that this week is over didn’t hurt either.
“Rick and I have been talking all week that we’ll be glad when 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon gets here, so thank God it’s here,” Stallings said. “They are really good. I am not saying that because Rick is my friend. They are very good on both ends. If there is a better team in that league [Atlantic Sun Conference] that they play in, I’d like to see it. I don’t want to play it. I’d like to see it though.”
• Vanderbilt starting forward Andre Walker did not play due to mononucleosis. Stallings said he doesn’t expect Walker to be available until after Christmas.
That could be a huge blow, considering Walker is second on the team in assists (26) and steals (six) and is arguably Vanderbilt’s best defensive player. The timing isn’t ideal, either, as Vanderbilt plays at No. 9 Missouri on Wednesday.
“People are going to have to step up and handle the ball and take care of it,” Taylor said. “We have a lot of good players on the team, a lot of capable players.”
• Vanderbilt reserve guard Chris Meriwether is expected to miss a couple weeks after tearing an artery in his neck. The Father Ryan grad injured it during practice more than a week ago but played through it, playing a minute against Appalachian State and just two minutes against Western Kentucky on Wednesday. The injury worsened against Western Kentucky and he was taken to the hospital after the game.
• Taylor received a technical foul after officials thought he hung on the rim too long after a breakaway dunk with 3:04 left. Taylor’s two-handed slam gave Vanderbilt its biggest lead of the game — 73-60 — but it appeared he swung on the rim.
“I probably held on a little bit too long,” Taylor said with a grin. “But, also I felt like if I would let go a little early I would have swung and possibly hurt myself.”
• It was the first time Jenkins hadn’t made a 3-pointer since last season on Feb. 6 against Georgia. He was just 0-for-2 from 3-point range and snapped a streak of 17 games with at least one.