Jeffery Taylor swears his heart rate was racing past 140 beats a minute — and he wasn’t even on the floor, which made Thursday night’s win for Vanderbilt even more impressive.
The Commodores forward fouled out with 1:30 left and watched from the bench as No. 23 Vanderbilt battled upstart Alabama in front of a sellout crowd of 14,316 at Memorial Gymnasium. Taylor finished with 19 points and could have been a factor in the closing minutes. It didn’t matter as his teammates stepped up.
Guard Brad Tinsley converted a huge three-point play, center Festus Ezeli came up with two defensive stops and guard John Jenkins nailed a pair of free throws with 5.1 seconds left to seal an 81-77 victory. VU snapped Alabama’s five-game winning streak and won its second straight — a big one in advance of a showdown with No. 18 Kentucky at noon on Saturday.
“I was dying over there,” Taylor said. “I wanted to be out there so bad but I was so glad they closed it out and they came up with some huge plays. ... I think it was huge for our season to finally close out a close game. It really helps with our confidence in those situations.”
Vanderbilt took a 76-75 lead with 1:20 to go when Ezeli made two free throws. He then blocked Tony Mitchell on the other end. But the Commodores (17-6, 5-4 Southeastern Conference) couldn’t convert and gave Alabama a shot to take the lead. The Crimson Tide grabbed it when Trevor Releford raced inside and made a layup for a 77-76 edge with 25.8 seconds left.
VU pushed the ball up the floor and did not to take a timeout. Tinsley got a ball screen from Ezeli, sunk a long-range jumper and drew contact from Releford, who fouled out on the play. Tinsley hit the free throw for a 79-77 lead with 17 seconds remaining.
“Any time you pump fake and go into a guy or you get fouled you try to, as a player, just get the ball up because you never know what could happen,” Tinsley said. “It could rattle and go in; you never know.”
Alabama had one more chance but as JaMychal Green drove inside on the baseline, he received some pressure for Ezeli. That forced him toward the edge and the official ruled he stepped out of bounds. That turned the ball back over to Vanderbilt, and Jenkins hit two free throws for an insurmountable four-point lead.
“I wasn’t confident that we were going to get a stop because we hadn’t gotten many — it didn’t feel like it,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “I was just hopeful we could guard them well and Fes did a great job. Those two [defensive plays] were really big for us. ... We won the game. We gutted it out, which is what he knew we were going to have to do.”
Alabama (15-8, 7-2) trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half until a 10-2 run cut Vanderbilt’s lead to 42-39 at halftime. The Commodores never led by more than seven after that and the Tide’s hot shooting kept them in it. They were 60 percent in the first half and finished the game shooting 55.6 percent. They outscored Vanderbilt 46-18 in the paint and received 23 points from Green and 22 from Mitchell.
The Commodores shot well, too. Alabama entered the game as the nation’s stingiest defense, allowing opponents to shoot an average of 36.2 percent from the field. Vanderbilt made 51 percent of its attempts and had four players score in double figures.
“The thing that we’ve hung our hats on all year is our ability to defend, and we had a tough time [Thursday] defensively,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “Vanderbilt did a great job.”
Taylor had 12 points by halftime and probably could have done more but he picked up his fourth foul with more than nine minutes left. He also grabbed eight rebounds.
But the rest of the Commodores rose to the occasion — each in their own way. Jenkins had a team-high 20 points and was 9-of-11 from the free-throw line. Tinsley had 15 to go along with six assists and Ezeli had 11 points, as the 63 percent free-throw shooter made five-of-six from the line.
“Jeff was saying ‘Close it out’ the whole time when he fouled out and I was like, ‘Yeah, we got to do it for him,'” Jenkins said. “He played a great game and we didn’t want it to end with a loss, especially at home again. Getting this big win like [Taylor] said was great for our confidence and greater for the future also.”
• Vanderbilt is 13-1 this season when Taylor scores 15 points or more. The Commodores’ only loss was an 85-82 overtime setback to Missouri in December.
• Memphis Grizzlies forward and former Connecticut star Hakeem Thabeet was in the crowd Thursday night. The 7-foot-3 native of Tanzania was on hand to cheer on Vanderbilt forward Steve Tchiengang, who is from Cameroon.
• Vanderbilt forward Andre Walker dressed out for the first time since spraining his ankle in practice in late December. But he did not play and has now missed 11 straight. Stallings said he is questionable to play Saturday against Kentucky.
• Whether or not Green stepped out of bounds with 6.3 seconds remaining was heavily discussed after the game. But Grant wouldn’t talk about it. Green was more concerned about the contact he received from Ezeli.
“I think I was fouled,” he said. “But it was in the referee’s hands. I can’t do anything about it.”