All Vanderbilt heard about Saint Mary’s College in preparation for Saturday’s game was that the Gaels could shoot.
Commodores coach Kevin Stallings drilled into the minds of his players that No. 22 Saint Mary’s had “great” shooters, not just good ones. Turns out, Vanderbilt’s not bad either.
The Commodores shot 50 percent (11-of-22) from 3-point range on their way to an 89-70 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 14,316 at Memorial Gymnasium.
They made 52 percent of their shots overall, marking the seventh time this season — but the first time in more than a month — that they made at least half of their shots from the field.
“We obviously shot it well, so that made a difference,” Stallings understated. “I thought our halfcourt offense was as good as it has been in a while. ... [But] Saint Mary’s is a much better team than what we saw [Saturday].”
Saint Mary’s (17-3), out of the West Coast Conference, entered the contest shooting 51.1 percent from the field, which was second best in the nation behind Kansas. The Gaels also shot a staggering 40.6 percent from behind the 3-point arc. Guard Mickey McConnell hit on 48.5 percent 3-point shots, which ranked eighth individually in the country.
Saturday, however, he was 0-for-4 and finished with just six points. As a team, St. Mary’s was just 6-of-23 (26 percent) from 3-point range.
“We couldn’t play zone against a team that shoots that well,” Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins said. “We knew we had to buckle down [in man-to-man defense] and take the challenge.”
Added teammate Brad Tinsley: “They have three guys on the perimeter that shoot well over 40 percent, which we thought we had to get to them on kick-outs or drives or whatever. I thought our guys did a great job on the perimeter guarding the 3.”
The Gaels, who had won 11 straight, made 10 of their first 13 shots and led 21-16 with 11:09 left. Vanderbilt (14-4) made it tough after that, going on a 27-7 run to end the half. The Commodores held St. Mary’s scoreless the last 4:13 and went into halftime with a 43-28 lead.
Saint Mary’s closed it to 47-42 with 15:06 left when 6-foot-11 Festus Ezeli picked up his fourth foul – he didn’t have any at halftime — and Kenton Walker II knocked down one of two free throws.
Stallings called a timeout and his team responded by making its next five shots, with two 3-pointers from Jenkins, a 3 and three-point play by Lance Goulbourne and a layup from Kyle Fuller. That made it 61-46.
“They were out-running us down the court. They were transitioning, driving us because we weren’t set,” Stallings said of why he called the timeout. “I got after a couple of guys because I thought our effort defensively was a little less than what I was expecting. We just had to shift it back up and play the way we had played the second part of the first half.”
Saint Mary’s made another late charge and trimmed the margin to five, 63-58, with 9:26 to go after a three-point play from McConnell. But McConnell missed a layup after a Vanderbilt turnover and the Gaels who had two more point-blank chances rim out and missed a chance to cut the deficit to three.
The Commodores then hit six straight free throws — they were 26-of-32 from the free-throw line — and Tinsley and Rod Odom hit back-to-back 3-pointers for an insurmountable 75-60 advantage with six minutes left.
“It could have been a different ending if we had connected on one of those [plays to trim it to three]” Saint Mary’s guard Matthew Dellavedova, who finished with 19 points, said. “They might have been under more pressure, taken the crowd out of it.”
Instead, Vanderbilt improved to 11-0 at home this season and has now won 21 straight homes games against non-conference opponents.
The Commodores’ sharp-shooting had a lot to do with it as four players finished in double figures. Jenkins led the team with four 3-pointers and 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Jeffery Taylor also had 19 points, thanks to 4-of-5 shooting from the field and making 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. Tinsley added 18 and Goulbourne scored 15. He grabbed 10 rebounds for his second career double-double (he recorded his first on Wednesday against Mississippi).
“It is definitely a boost to our confidence,” Tinsley said. “I thought we just played well from tip to buzzer.”
• Vanderbilt committed 23 turnovers, matching a season-high. It is the second time in three games that the Commodores had more than 20 turnovers. They had 21 miscues at Tennessee last week.
“I think some of it is careless and unforced,” Goulbourne said. “A lot of it comes from aggression as well and that is always good when you are being aggressive. We just got to try to cut down on those. ... We’ll get it fixed.”
• Vanderbilt did win the rebounding battle for the third straight game. The Commodores had 39 rebounds compared to Saint Mary’s 27.
• Saint Mary’s is 0-2 all-time against Vanderbilt. The Commodores held on to beat the Gaels 72-70 last season in Moraga, Calif.
• Omar ‘Sandman’ Samhan, who scored 25 points and grabbed 18 rebounds against Vanderbilt a season ago, is now playing professional basketball in Lithuania. The 6-foot-11, 265-pounder averaged 21.3 points a game. He received national attention during the Gaels’ two NCAA Tournament victories against Richmond and Villanova on their way to the Sweet 16.
• Starting forward Andre Walker missed his sixth straight game due to a high ankle sprain. Stallings said tendonitis in Ezeli’s knee, which has been bothering him for a couple weeks, kept him from being “explosive.” Guard Steve Tchiengang battled through a right ankle injury to play 13 minutes, up from nine against Mississippi.
Due to the injuries, Jenkins (35), Goulbourne (33) and Taylor (30) played at least 30 minutes for the second straight game.
“I think a lot of our guys have worked really hard in the offseason on the conditioning and most of our guys are ready to play 30-plus minutes whenever they are called upon, which is another strength of our team I think,” Tinsley, who played 25 minutes, said.
• McConnell had eight assists and just one turnover. He averages 6.4 assists a game, which is tied for 10th in the country. His assist to turnover ratio (3.05) is eight-best in the nation.