Jeffery Taylor wasn’t a factor for most of the game. Neither was Lance Goulbourne.
With the two Vanderbilt starters battling foul trouble and not producing as normal, the Commodores needed someone to step up.
Enter stage left: John Jenkins. And stage right. And at the top of the key. And on the dribble drive. And at the free-throw line. And on defense.
The Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer did it all Saturday, dropping a career-high 32 points as No. 23 Vanderbilt held off No. 18 Kentucky for an 81-77 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 14,316 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“I told coach [Kevin Stallings] this must have been a dream or something because this can’t be real,” Jenkins, a product of nearby Station Camp, said. “Especially being from here, you see a lot of great games against Kentucky and just to be a part of that legacy now is something special.”
The sophomore guard became the first Vanderbilt player to score more than 30 points against Kentucky in more than 30 years (Mike Rhodes scored 34 on Jan. 19, 1980). It was also the first 30-point game by a Commodore since A.J. Ogilvy had 33 nearly two years ago.
Jenkins played nearly all of the game — Stallings took him out for 30 seconds in the first half — and matched his career-high with six 3-pointers. The Hendersonville native was 11-of-17 from the field and 4-of-5 from the free-throw line, to go along with three assists, three rebounds and one steal. Plus, he did all that with a sprained right shoulder he injured more than a week ago.
“He was just really good,” Stallings said. “I was pleased with him on both ends, which that doesn’t happen that often.”
His play late might have thrust him into the national spotlight as the game was televised on CBS. With Vanderbilt trailing 63-61, Jenkins scored 10 of Vanderbilt’s next 14 points, capped off by a steal on one end and a finger roll layup on the other for a 75-69 lead with 2:17 left.
“It was just one of those days he was having,” Kentucky forward Josh Harrellson said. “I don’t think he missed very many shots. He is a great player and he was hard to contain [Saturday]. He had a career night.”
Neither team led by more than eight points as the lead changed nine times. It was Jenkins’ final 3-pointer with 4:28 to go that gave the Commodores (18-6, 6-4) the lead for good.
Still, they had to hold off Kentucky (17-7, 5-5) and Terrence Jones, who scored 25 points and pulled the Wildcats within three with 1:18 remaining. But the Commodores hit six straight free throws — two from Festus Ezeli and four from Brad Tinsley — in the final minute to grab their third straight win.
“Those are so big and it is really neat to watch those guys step up and make them like that,” Stallings said.
Ezeli finished with 14 points and Tinsley scored all 11 of his after halftime. Steve Tchiengang added 12 before intermission, which accounted for the bulk of 20 bench points as Rod Odom (five) and Kyle Fuller (three) contributed to the cause when Taylor and Goulbourne both picked up two fouls within the first 12 minutes. Both players finished with four fouls. Goulbourne went scoreless and Taylor had just four points on 1-of-7 shooting.
It didn’t seem to matter as Jenkins showed he has developed into much more than a spot-up shooter like he was last year when he earned the league’s sixth man of the year award.
Kentucky’s 6-foot-6 guard DeAndre Liggins, who Stallings said might be the SEC’s best defender, was on the 6-4 Jenkins for the most of the game. When he got into foul trouble late, Brandon Knight took over but both had problems with slowing down Jenkins.
He was constantly moving, getting free on ball screens, using step-back and crossovers to create space, driving to the rim and, at times, just simply draining contested jumpers.
“I had to add a little something else different than shooting 3s all the time because guys pick up on that easy,” Jenkins said. “I worked a little bit with the coaches on just driving the ball and just creating off the dribble a little bit and that has been working so far this year.”
For Jenkins, everything worked on Saturday and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
• Kentucky entered the game shooting an SEC-best 40.4 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. Against Vanderbilt, however, the Wildcats were just 7-of-23 (30.4 percent). Knight hit four of those, finishing with 20 points.
"We missed so many wide-open 3s," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "Guys just couldn't make them."
• Kentucky had won the last two in the series but has now lost six of the last eight games in Nashville. The Wildcats still lead the all-time series 133-44.
• The Wildcats are 1-5 on the road in SEC play this season.
• Liggins was called for a technical foul with 5:34 left in the first half after saying something to the Vanderbilt bench. He had four fouls and finished with 10 points.
• Vanderbilt starting forward Andre Walker dressed out for the second straight game but did not play. He has missed the last 12 games due to a high ankle sprain.
• The Commodores were 55 percent (11-of-20) from 3-point range, matching a season-high. Five different players hit treys — Jenkins (six), Tchiengang (two), Tinsley (one), Fuller (one) and Odom (one). Vanderbilt is 6-0 when shooting more than 50 percent from beyond the arc.