Wounded — literally and figuratively — and playing without its leading scorer, No. 18 Vanderbilt was vulnerable.
For a half on Tuesday night, the Commodores looked susceptible to a second straight upset at the hands of a mid-major. The last 20 minutes, however, the shots fell, the lanes opened up inside and the bench stepped up. All three ingredients added up to a 80-68 victory over Bucknell in front of 12,543 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“It was a huge game for us,” Jeffery Taylor, who scored a team-high 14 points, said. “After the performance against Cleveland State [on Sunday], we were really disappointed, kind of ashamed of it. We put an emphasis on this game to play hard ... because we feel we are talented enough offensively that if we play hard, then we’ll take care of most games.
"We just have to go out and compete every night.”
Already without 6-foot-11 center Festus Ezeli (knee), the Commodores sustained another blow when shooting guard John Jenkins (20.5 points per game) sat with a right ankle injury he sustained against Cleveland State.
The Commodores (2-1) missed both early in the Legends Classic regional game. They appeared hesitant to drive or post up against a Bison squad that returned four starters from a 25-win season. Vanderbilt relied on jump shots and 3-pointers, few of which fell.
In the opening half, the Commodores were 2-of-15 from 3-point range and shot just 34.3 percent from the field. Though Bucknell failed to grab an offensive rebound before halftime, Vanderbilt clung to a 27-26 lead at the break.
“I got a lot of calls from really coaching friends about how well-coached they are and they won’t be scared, they won’t back up,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “They were exactly right. Their team is really well put together, really well coached and they have very good players.”
After intermission, the Commodores were more assertive. Stallings said the coaching staff drew up plays at halftime to get the ball into Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang in order to put the Bison in “some bad positions.”
“You don’t play very many people that play defense the way they do,” Stallings said. “When I say they are packed in, they are packed in. They can have five guys inside the 3-point line at any time. You just don’t play against that very much. It is the polar opposite of what we played against on Sunday where they were all the way down the court, really getting up in our shorts.
“I commend our team for making the adjustment. We knew we would get shots. Of course, you don’t know if you are going to make them. We made some and it worked out.”
Leading 35-32 four minutes into the second half, Vanderbilt made five in a row during a 14-2 run, which was highlighted by a no-look pass from reserve Kedren Johnson to Brad Tinsley for an easy layup in transition. Taylor capped the spurt off with a 3-pointer from the right side to give Vanderbilt a commanding 47-34 edge with 14:03 remaining. Bucknell never got closer than 11 after that.
Johnson was one of five players in double-digit figures for Vanderbilt and led the reserves with 12 points. The bench scored 35 points — 24 more than its previous best this season. Sophomore reserve Rod Odom contributed 10 points. Freshman Dai-Jon Parker had a rough shooting night, going 2-for-10 and 1-for-7 from 3-point range. But defensively he helped Taylor hold Bryson Johnson, who Stallings called a “prolific shooter,” to four points.
Johnson, a 6-foot-4 guard from Marshall County, made the biggest impression. His quick drives to the basket and on-target passes sparked the Commodores as he played a career-high 24 minutes. He spelled sophomore Kyle Fuller, who was making his first career start.
“We kind of talked about that earlier in the day, that we all just had to fill in because John’s out and that is a majority of our scoring,” Johnson said. “We all just had to kind of chip in and take care of his load.”
Jenkins is expected to return for Vanderbilt’s semifinal match of the Legends Classic on Saturday against North Carolina State in East Rutherford, N.J. The hope is that fellow starters Tinsley and Goulbourne will be healthier, too.
Tinsley broke a bone in his right hand in August and aggravated it against Oregon. He scored just seven points against Cleveland State. He had 12 on 5-of-15 shooting (1-of-7 from 3-point range) against Bucknell, playing a team-high 31 minutes. Goulbourne played 21 minutes, made 5-of-6 shots for 12 points and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. He did all this while battling a fever as Stallings said his temperature reached 101.5 degrees on Monday.
“I’m really, really proud of my team, given what we were up against and the fact that we were playing an extremely good team,” Stallings said. “Coming off a loss at home, that always puts additional pressure on you when the next game is at home. There is a lot of additional pressure when the team is as good as Bucknell is.”