Last week, those nagging knee injuries again started to bother Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli.
The senior still played in both of the Commodores’ games — and played well enough that he averaged 12.5 points. But at athletic trainer Shannon Gordon’s request, he missed some practice time this week to help soothe an aching left knee.
Ezeli looked better than ever, elevating for four dunks and tying a season-high with 21 points as Vanderbilt pulled away from LSU for a 76-61 victory on Wednesday night in front of 13,610 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“I felt good [Wednesday] in terms of health-wise,” said Ezeli, who was 8-of-10 from the field. “In the first half there were some pains and aches. But, yeah, I just feel good. When I feel good, I just play.”
Ezeli, who has missed 10 games this year due to problems with both knees, set the tone from the beginning as Vanderbilt (16-7, 6-3) snapped a two-game losing streak in advance of Saturday’s big home matchup with No. 1 Kentucky.
He made his first five baskets, three on two-handed dunks — all off entry passes from freshman Kedren Johnson. The last of the bunch came when Ezeli got open in transition, slammed down a no-look pass from Johnson and gave Vanderbilt a 20-12 lead with 9:07 left.
“If you don’t do your work early, he’ll get anybody,” LSU forward Storm Warren said. “We were a step off, a step behind him and he got his touches.”
The Tigers (13-10, 3-6 SEC) responded with eight straight points and stuck around. Anthony Hickey hit a 3-pointer with nine seconds before halftime to give LSU a 27-25 lead. But Jeffery Taylor responded out of a timeout by cruising down the court for a game-tying layup with one second left. He finished with 19 points, including three 3-pointers.
Ralston Turner’s jumper with 16:39 left gave the Tigers their last lead, 35-34.
That’s when Ezeli again stepped up. This time he let his defense do the talking, racing down the court to block Justin Hamilton’s layup attempt. This sparked a 12-0 run by Vanderbilt as Taylor’s second consecutive open 3-pointer capped off the spurt for a 46-35 lead with 12:53 remaining.
“I kind of lost sight of him, and I lost sight of the ball,” Ezeli said of the block. “And I looked for it, and he had the ball. He went up and I went up and I was just determined not to let him score.”
LSU, stuck in a seven-game losing streak to Vanderbilt, didn’t give up.
Despite 3-of-21 shooting and getting outscored 38-22 in the point, the Tigers cut the lead to four three times. The last came on two free throws by Andre Stringer with 4:47 left.
But Vanderbilt switched to a zone defense and baffled the Tigers, who missed four shots and committed two of its six turnovers during the stretch. They didn’t score until hitting two free throws with eight seconds left.
By that time, the game was long over as Ezeli had again ignited a Commodore run. With 4:33 to go, he got an open look off pass from Rod Odom and delivered a one-handed dunk. This was the start of 13 straight points, including consecutive 3-pointers by John Jenkins, who had 20 points and four 3-pointers.
“You know, it’s funny because you really can’t anticipate a performance like that is coming [from Ezeli] when a kid doesn’t get to practice,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Now, hopefully that will give him some confidence and help him as we go through our next stretch here.”
• It was a homecoming of sorts for Hickey. The freshman is from Hopkinsville, Ky., which is just 70 miles southwest of Nashville.
Though he had 12 points, he was just 5-of-16 from the field and 2-of-9 from 3-point range.
• Senior Storm Warren led the Tigers, scoring 13 points off the bench. He picked up nine during a four-minute stretch in the second half. Hamilton, a 7-foot transfer from Iowa State, scored 10 points but had just two after halftime. He grabbed 11 rebounds for the second straight game.
• Vanderbilt committed a season-low seven turnovers. They had been averaging 14.3 turnovers but committed 17 in a loss to Florida on Saturday.
“We took care of the ball. What do you know?” Stallings said. “Fourteen assists and seven turnovers – that’s solid.”