Over four years, more leads and apparent victories than anyone wants to remember got away from Vanderbilt’s record-breaking senior class.
Not this one.
Energized by a sold-out and raucous Memorial Gymnasium crowd, an emotional Commodore bunch shrugged off a Florida comeback and closed out an impressive 77-67 victory over the 16th-ranked Gators on senior night Tuesday.
With six seniors and a redshirt-junior playing their last home game, Vanderbilt raced out to a 12-point first-half lead, fell behind in the second half, but bounced back and shut down the Gators over the last five minutes.
“We were just determined not to let this one slip away,” senior forward Jeffery Taylor said. “This game had a lot of significance for us [seniors] but also for us as a team. It is a really nice, signature win going into March. I think this one will really count for us.”
It was only their second win over a ranked opponent this season. With one regular-season game remaining, it propelled Vanderbilt (21-9, 10-5) into a tie for second place in the Southeastern Conference with Florida (22-8, 10-5).
The Gators, who had won four in a row over Vanderbilt, jumped in front for the first time, 50-49, with 10:32 remaining when Casey Prather flew in for a two-handed slam dunk. The teams exchanged baskets on the next five possessions, including three straight 3-pointers. Erik Murphy’s trey gave Florida its last lead, 55-54. Taylor answered with a 3 from the corner, putting Vanderbilt up to stay, 57-55, with 8:49 left.
Florida pulled within one twice, but Taylor answered with his final 3-pointer, a pull-up on the left wing that made it 65-61 with 5:31 left.
Vanderbilt’s zone defense did the rest as the Gators scored just six points the rest of the way, three coming on free throws.
The Commodores sealed the win by making 10 of 12 free throws in the last 5:04. Senior guard Brad Tinsley accounted for six of them — his only points. Two came after he wrestled away a rebound from 6-foot-9 Patric Young after Young had missed a critical layup with Vanderbilt leading 69-64 with 3:12 to go.
“We knew they were crashing the offensive boards, especially in the first half. They kind of killed us. So we knew we had to box out, especially in the zone,” Tinsley said. “I just jumped up and grabbed it and tried to rip it out of his hands. I didn’t want to go out wondering what if I would have got that, what if I wouldn’t have.”
Playing off emotion and adrenaline in front of a crowd of 14,316, Vanderbilt made its first three baskets and jumped out to a 10-2 lead on John Jenkins’ catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Five different players scored in the opening nine minutes as senior Festus Ezeli’s basket off the glass gave the Commodores their biggest lead, 19-7, with 10:55 left. Florida, using a full-court press that flustered Vanderbilt and eight straight points from Erving Walker, rallied to tie it and trailed by just three at halftime.
Jenkins made his first six shots, including five 3-pointers. The junior, possibly playing his last home game if he decides to leave early for the NBA, didn’t miss a shot until the 10:38 mark of the second half. He finished with a game-high 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting, with six 3-pointers.
“We were in a zone a couple times and let Jenkins get loose, which was really uncalled for because it's not that hard to locate where the guy is at,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Taylor scored 18 points and hit four 3-pointers. Ezeli got into early foul trouble but finished with 11 points. He fouled out on a block attempt with 11 seconds left but received a boisterous standing ovation from the Commodore fans.
Florida entered leading the nation with 10.1 made 3-pointers a game. The Gators were held to 8-of-24 from behind the arc (Vanderbilt was 12-of-24 from 3-point range). Most of Florida’s damage was done on driving layups as Bradley Beal scored 16, Walker had 15 and Kenny Boynton added 11.
Taylor, Tinsley and Ezeli, who rank in the top 10 for numerous Vanderbilt records, were honored before the game along with regulars Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang and walk-ons Jordan Smart and Aaron Noll.
“Longest senior ceremony I’ve ever seen,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, who had seen the Commodores previous two senior nights result in a loss.
With less than 15 seconds left and the game in hand, Stallings separately subbed out his remaining seniors, Tinsley and Taylor. The duo walked off to a huge applause and Taylor was seen wiping away tears as he hugged his head coach.
“It’s interesting because I think there is sometimes a perception that, amongst some, probably not many, that our guys. ... I’m hard on them and blah, blah, blah,” Stallings said. “We struggle on senior night because our guys appreciate and love their experience here. So I told them immediately following the Kentucky game — immediately, like we were still in there disappointed from the loss — and I said, ‘Listen, nobody is going to start crying on senior night. Nobody. Cry after the game.’
“And they obliged. I had some guys crying after the game. I don't know if you can tell how wet my shirt is but two or three of them were going after it pretty hard.”