ATLANTA — Kevin Stallings’ uppercut was a little early but his roundabout was right on the mark.
Both gestures from the Vanderbilt head coach came after big plays as the Commodores delivered big blows late and pulled out an 87-81 victory against Mississippi State on Friday night in a quarterfinal of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at the Georgia Dome.
John Jenkins scored 29 points on an injured toe and Jeffery Taylor added 20 as the Commodores (23-9) advanced to a semifinal against Florida at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. The duo combined for 22 of Vanderbilt’s final 25 points in a game that featured 14 ties and 13 lead changes. Neither team led by more than seven points.
“It was just tooth and nail the whole way and neither [team] could get away from the other,” Stallings said. “If you are a college basketball fan at all, you had to enjoy that game.”
Taylor scored eight of 11 points — the other three were from Jenkins — during a two-minute span toward the end of the game. His assist to a wide-open Lance Goulbourne set up a 3-pointer that gave the Commodores a 76-71 lead with 3:03 left and had Stallings winding up with an emphatic fist pump that resembled Tiger Woods.
But Mississippi State’s Renardo Sidney punched back and scored the next five points. The 6-foot-10 forward tied it with his second 3-pointer of the game and just his seventh of the season.
Jenkins, the league’s leading scorer with 19.4 points a game, answered with seven straight Commodores' points. He drew two fouls from behind the 3-point arc. He missed the mark on the first but made three free throws and then followed up with a made 3-pointer and free throw for a four-point play and a 83-78 lead with 1:35 to go that left Stallings slicing his forearm through the air.
“Whenever he does that, it gets the whole team pretty excited,” Jenkins said laughing. “That gave us a spark, too, I guess.”
Stallings, who was sitting next to Jenkins on the podium afterwards, added with a laugh: “You have seen that much emotion, just not positive.”
The Commodores hung on from there as Stallings shifted back to a 2-3 zone defense, which he used often. He thought it stymied Mississippi State (17-14) just enough.
“I thought that was a big factor in the second half and obviously the offensive play of [Jenkins and Taylor] was incredible,” Stallings said. “What I liked was how our team stayed connected in that stretch run there and how we played for each other. They knew to go to those two guys and then those two guys delivered.”
Taylor scored 14 points after halftime and Jenkins had 22 in the second half as both players did it in their own ways. When he wasn’t sinking 15-foot jumpers, the 6-foot-7 Taylor used his athleticism to slash through the paint, finishing with slam dunks and layups.
“I was just trying to let the game come to me. Fortunately, I was able to curl a couple times and get into the lane and get fouled, make the baskets,” Taylor said. “A couple times I came off ball screens and hit some shots. It was just all in the offense. I was just trying to be aggressive and the ball went in for me.”
Jenkins, who sat out Thursday’s first-round game against LSU due to turf toe, warmed up with five on-line 3-pointers and several step-back jumpers.
“I felt quite a bit [of pain] but I knew I had just to keep fighting on,” Jenkins said. “I knew if I didn’t keep fighting, I would let my teammates’ down. At the beginning of the second half, Jeff and I kind of made a decision that we wanted to step up and be leaders so that is what we did.”
• Vanderbilt will get its third crack at Florida. The two teams met last Saturday and the Gators prevailed 86-76 in Nashville. The SEC’s regular season champions also edged the Commodores in overtime in Gainesville on Feb. 1.
“Any time a team beats you twice in the regular season, it is pretty tough to go through,” Jenkins said. “Anybody would want a third chance so we are happy to get it.
• Stallings didn’t think Jenkins was “in the clear” yet with his toe injury but hopes to have him available again on Saturday.
“My anticipation would be that he will be more sore [Saturday] than he was [Friday],” Stallings said. “He played 34 minutes. I gave him a lot of rest.”
The sophomore from Hendersonville was a game-time decision Friday and Stallings said Jenkins didn’t let up in the team’s shoot-around prior to tip-off.
“At our shoot-around he really worked hard ... to push himself and break a sweat,” Stallings said. “I don’t know, maybe that has to become the gameday routine because that was pretty spectacular what he did in the second half.”
• Vanderbilt guard Brad Tinsley scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half. He also had six assists and zero turnovers.
• After picking up two fouls in the opening 90 seconds of the game and sitting the rest of the first half, Sidney played beastly for the Bulldogs. He scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half and was 10-of-16 from the field. Ravern Johnson added 18 points and Bost had 16.
• Vanderbilt lost the rebounding battle (35-25) and the scoring battle in the paint (34-24).