Welcome to Southeastern Conference play, Festus Ezeli.
Yes, technically, Ezeli played in 35 conference games the last two seasons and started on Saturday in Vanderbilt’s SEC opener at South Carolina on Saturday. In that game, however, he got into foul trouble early and was held to seven points in an overtime loss.
In a 73-66 upset victory on Wednesday night against No. 24 Georgia at Memorial Gymnasium, there was no doubt the center had arrived.
“I think coaches know,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “I don’t think he is really going to sneak up on anyone.”
Not after Wednesday. The 6-foot-11, 255-pound junior scored 18 points, corralled 10 rebound and played with obvious emotion as he helped snap Georgia’s nine-game winning streak in front of a sellout crowd of 14,316. He drew contact and got Georgia’s big men into foul trouble — 6-foot-8 Jeremy Price fouled out with 9:48 to go and 6-10 Trey Thompkins committed four fouls — despite tendonitis in his knee.
This one was important not just for Ezeli but for a Vanderbilt squad trying not to fall to 0-2 in SEC play.
“We’re hungry,” Ezeli said. “We’re still mad about that game [against South Carolina]. We still got a bad taste about that one. We didn’t play to our abilities and potential.”
Vanderbilt (12-3, 1-1) played with a lot more energy and determination back at home. The Commodores never trailed, led by as many as 11 in the first half and went into halftime on top 40-32.
Georgia (12-3, 1-1) hung tight, though. Paced by Tennessee State transfer and MLK grad Gerald Robinson, the Bulldogs went on a 10-3 run midway through the second half. Robinson, a junior guard, scored six points during the stretch and hit two free throws to trim the lead to 56-53 with 10:34 left.
After two free throws by Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins, Ezeli went to work again. He made a hook shot and drew contact against Price, the fifth foul against the Georgia player. Ezeli missed the free throw for the three-point play but Jenkins nailed a 3-pointer on the next possession to give Vanderbilt a 63-53 lead with 9:08 remaining.
Georgia didn't get closer than six after that and couldn’t scratch itself back into a one-possession game.
The Commodores switched to a zone defense at times, which seemed to slow down Georgia, though coach Mark Fox said his team wasn’t surprised by it.
“We have seen quite a bit of zone and have been playing pretty well against it, to be honest with you,” Fox said. “We shot well the first half [40.6 percent]. We didn’t shoot well in the second half [30 percent]. We kind of quit looking at the basket a little bit.”
Despite the off-shooting night, Georgia still had three players finish in double figures. Travis Leslie finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Robinson added 20 points and Thompkins scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.
For Vanderbilt, Jenkins scored 18 points and was 3-of-6 from 3-point range. Jeffery Taylor chipped in 15 points and sent the crowd, which included a packed student section for the first time since classes were out for winter break, into a frenzy with a slam dunk with 9:39 left in the first half. Taylor got loose on an in-bounds play and soared high for Kyle Fuller’s pass. He snagged it with one hand, hung for what seemed like a few seconds, and slammed it down with authority.
“Whenever you have an electrifying play like that, it kind of gets everybody going,” Taylor said. “It is definitely what the crowd wants. It is kind of a crowd pleaser.”
Still, Ezeli’s play and emotion might have more of a lasting impact as the season rolls on. Several times after getting fouled or knocking down one of his six baskets, Ezeli let out a roar as if to let everyone else know he is here on the SEC stage.
“I believe he gets me going,” Jenkins said. “Whenever he shows emotion, a guy that big doing that, I don’t know if you can help but get hyped. Especially with a guy we look up to in the post and we look up to as a leader for our team. When he definitely is doing that, he gives our whole team and our crowd energy.”
• Fox received a technical foul after being warned for an arguing a foul call with 5:03 left. It came after Robinson was called for a foul on Jenkins. It wasn’t clear if Fox thought he had been called for a technical when the warning was issued. Or if he thought he had already been given a technical foul and was trying to get thrown out.
Afterwards, he wouldn’t say what he was thinking, as he just paused and smiled when asked about the officials. As for the technical foul, he said “I got what I asked for.”
• Due to the snow and ice that hit Georgia early Monday morning and still hasn’t thawed, the Bulldogs bussed from Athens, Ga. Fox said they will stay in Nashville until at least Friday and will go directly to Oxford, Miss., for their game against Mississippi, 4 p.m., Saturday.
• Vanderbilt junior forward Lance Goulbourne, who is starting in place of the injured Andre Walker, has 24 rebounds in two conference games. The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder hauled down 10 rebounds against Georgia after he had a career-high 14 against South Carolina.
“It is a sign of how much he has improved from last year when he battled illness and injury," Stallings said. “It is a sign of how much more aggressively he is playing, how much more consistently he is playing. The consistency of his effort has just improved dramatically from last year. He is really a guy we can count on, really count on. I’m real excited, have been all season long, with his play.”