Festus Ezeli doesn’t have an explanation for his play on Sunday at Georgia.
His performance on Wednesday didn’t need one.
The Vanderbilt center atoned for an off-day with 14 points and five blocked shots, which tied his season-high, as the Commodores fended off SEC cellar dweller South Carolina for a 59-48 victory at Memorial Gymnasium.
The 6-foot-11 Ezeli scored just one point, committed five turnovers and played a season-low 13 minutes against Georgia. He got off to another slow start against South Carolina, scoring just two points in the first half and playing only six minutes as he picked up two quick fouls.
After the break, his defense fueled his offense. All five blocks came in the last 7:11 and he swatted three shots by Brenton Williams. He also accounted for eight points in a 9-2 run that allowed Vanderbilt to separate.
“I just played bad [against Georgia]. I felt like I needed to come out this game and play better. It was a bounce back game for me,” Ezeli said. “The first half was kind of rough with foul trouble and stuff. I mean it took a while for me to get going [Wednesday], and I just eventually did.”
Behind Ezeli’s performance and 21 points from John Jenkins, Vanderbilt (20-8, 9-4) picked up its fourth win in five games. It wasn’t easy though as the Gamecocks (10-17, 2-11) used stingy man defense to hang tight.
Vanderbilt never led by more than five in the first half and went into halftime tied at 22. That matched their lowest first-half total of the season, also against South Carolina. The difference then was that Commodores led by 10 at the break.
Jeffery Taylor’s only basket of the game pushed the Commodores ahead to stay with 17:11 left. Taylor, the SEC’s second leading scorer, had just four points — his lowest total since Vanderbilt’s NCAA Tournament loss to Richmond last season.
After the Commodores pushed the lead to seven, missed opportunities and turnovers allowed the Gamecocks to pull within two. They trailed by three when Ezeli asserted himself. He blocked two straight jumpers by Williams and then stuffed a reverse layup. On the other end, he laid in a pass from Brad Tinsley and his two free throws lifted Vanderbilt to an insurmountable 48-38 lead with 4:19 left. He was 8-of-8 from the foul line.
“That is certainly a step in the right direction,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “He needs to rebound the ball some more for us but he did a great job of affecting shots and blocking shots and changing shots. He’s got to be a big player for us going down the stretch here if we’re going to do what we want to do.”
• Vanderbilt has won 20 games for the third straight season. Stallings failed to achieve the feat in his first four years at the helm but over the last nine years the Commodores have done it seven times.
“It used to be a real benchmark, but I’m proud to get there,” he said. “It’s good that when we had our first shot at it, we knocked it out. I’m hoping for more than 20.”
• Vanderbilt took advantage of a huge free-throw discrepancy.
The Commodores attempted 26 free throws after halftime and were 25-of-28 at the line. South Carolina shot a 100 percent from the stripe but attempted just four free throws.
South Carolina was whistled for 20 fouls while Vanderbilt was called for only nine.
“Twenty-eight free throws to four it is basically going to be impossible to win the game,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. “Late we drove the ball a bunch but we ended up at the ground but we didn’t end up at the foul line.”
• Vanderbilt forward Lance Goulbourne scored 12 points, marking his first double figure game since Jan. 28. The team’s leading rebounder also grabbed eight boards, seven in the first half.
• Bruce Ellington led the Gamecocks with 15 points as South Carolina shot just 28.1 percent in the second half.
• The Commodores have held three SEC opponents to under 50 points this season.