John Jenkins scored 27 points, the last six on free throws in the final minute, as Vanderbilt held off Harvard for a 79-70 victory in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday at Albuquerque, N.M.
The Commodores (25-10) led by 18 (62-44) after a Jeffery Taylor dunk with 8:44 to play then were outscored 17-8 over the next six-plus minutes. Their lead dwindled to as few as six points, 70-64, but they made nine of 10 from the foul line after that and clinched their first NCAA victory since 2007.
“The biggest cue for us is being poised,” Jenkins said. “I think leadership is definitely a factor in that guys huddled up and decided we need to lock down and get rebounds down the stretch, and we did that when we had to. We hit big free throws.”
As a team, Vanderbilt shot 54.3 percent from the floor (25-for-46), 44.4 on 3-pointers (8-for-18) and 70 percent on free throws (21-for-30). It also had a 35-22 edge in rebounds.
“We knew they were good going in, and we knew we had to play a good game in order to win, and that's exactly what happened,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “… I thought we got a little tentative there in that stretch at the end. Almost like we were playing not to lose instead of playing to win.”
Brad Tinsley was 5-for-6 from the field (2-for-2 on 3-pointers) and finished with 16 points and Taylor added 14 — both career-highs in NCAA tournament games. Festus Ezeli had a game-high 11 rebounds in addition to eight points.
Tinsley’s last second-3-pointer capped a 13-3 Commodores’ run to conclude the first half. Taylor’s layup, which broke a 20-20 tie, started that run and put VU ahead to stay.
Jenkins then started the second-half scoring with a four-point play. He was fouled as a made a 3-pointer and made the accompanying free throw.
“I thought the end of the first half, the run that they closed on was a big plus for them,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “But I was really impressed with the effort that our kids
gave to make the game interesting toward the end.”
Harvard (26-5) got a team-high 20 points from Laurent Rivard, who was 6-for-7 (all 3-pointers) from the floor. He made consecutive 3s that got the Crimson within 11, 68-57, with 3:58 to play. Kyle Casey added 13 points, and Brandyn Curry added 12.
Rivard, Casey and Curry scored all of Harvard’s points in that second-half run after it looked like the Commodores had built a comfortable advantage.
Vanderbilt will face Wisconsin in the next round, Saturday.
“It's very meaningful for us,” Taylor said. “We've had a lot of obstacles and hurdles
we've had to clear throughout our time here at Vanderbilt. This one definitely means something to us. We're looking forward to a great game against Wisconsin on Saturday.”