For the first time in three months, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings could joke about free-throw shooting.
Typically a tortuous affair for the Commodores this season, trips to the foul line looked effortless in a 73-61 victory on Wednesday night against Auburn.
Instead of a throbbing clang from hitting the rim, Stallings and Vanderbilt fans were treated with a sound that was music to their ears. Vanderbilt shot a season-high 80 percent from the line by making 24 of 30. The breakthrough night led to Stallings jokingly taking credit for the success, saying he took over the free-throw shooting coaching duties from assistant coach Tom Richardson.
“I let him do it all year long,” Stallings said. “I decided to take it over and we made them. No, that’s a joke in case anybody was wondering.”
All kidding aside, the success at the line allowed the Commodores (8-9, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) to breathe a little easier — for one night at least. They entered ranked 344th out of 345 Division I teams with a dreadful 57.2 free-throw shooting percentage.
“It is about time because it has lost some games for us,” Stallings said. “That’s what we’re capable of right there. Hopefully we can build on that and continue it. I was happy for them. I know they’ve worked on it.”
Kedren Johnson made eight of 10 from the line, accounting for more than half of his game-high 15 points. Kyle Fuller made six of seven. Rod Odom didn’t miss on six attempts.
At one point the Commodores made eight straight and were 10-of-12 by halftime.
“We’re a good free-throw shooting team,” Johnson said. “We’ve been shooting pretty good in practice. It was just the confidence has been built up in games to where we just got to go out and shoot them like we do in practice and not overthink your free-throw shooting. That’s what happens a lot — mental blocks happen a lot during free-throw shooting.”
In addition, the Commodores received a surprising boost from the bench.
The reserves scored a season-high 30 points, with 14 coming from Fuller and 12 from Kevin Bright. The guards have come off the bench the last three games after starting the opening 14.
Bright, a freshman from Germany, tied a career-high with four 3-pointers. He is averaging 10.6 points in his last three games.
“I’m feeling pretty comfortable coming from the bench,” Bright said. “I don’t have a problem with it. We’re playing better since we made the adjustment. As long as we’re winning I’m fine.”
Suddenly, after losing their first three SEC games, the Commodores have put together a winning streak even if it is just two games. They shrugged off a slow start and scored the last seven points of the first half to take a 34-27 halftime lead.
Behind 14 points from Rob Chubb and Frankie Sullivan, Auburn (8-10, 2-3) pulled to within five twice early in the second half. But Fuller answered with a 3-pointer to spark a 13-3 run. Sheldon Jeter, who had 10 points, and Bright each added treys during the spurt. Josh Henderson snuck a pass out of a trap and found a wide-open Odom cutting to the basket for a two-handed dunk and a commanding 52-37 lead with 12:28 left.
The lead never dipped below nine points as the Commodores held Auburn to just 35.5 percent shooting in the second half. It marked Vanderbilt’s seventh straight win over the Tigers. More importantly, they strung together consecutive wins for the first time since Dec. 15 and 17.
“We’re in a really nice groove right now,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of positive energy in the locker room and in the program as a whole. We’re just trying to capitalize on that in every practice and game.”