Kevin Stallings didn’t want to call it a hangover from his team’s recent tournament in Puerto Rico and he didn’t think his squad overlooked its opponent.
The Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach just thought Grambling State delivered a punch his Commodores hadn’t felt this season.
“They slapped us pretty good at the start, and that’s the first time all season we’ve been slapped,” Stallings said. “We were playing on our heels for some reason, and haven’t really done that defensively all year.”
Luckily for Vanderbilt, the defense wasn’t asleep for the whole game. It recovered in the second half for a 92-59 victory in front of an announced crowd of 12,270 at Memorial Gym on Wednesday night.
Grambling State was hot early, hitting four straight baskets as it jumped out to a 16-4 lead with 15:13 remaining in the first half. A quick, athletic Tigers' squad seemed to be more energized than the Commodores — on both sides of the ball. Grambling found open shots and forced 11 first-half VU turnovers.
“They definitely surprised us with their speed,” guard John Jenkins said. “We had to make an adjustment.”
The first half was similar to Vanderbilt’s game against West Virginia last Friday. In that contest, the Commodores found themselves in a 14-point hole. They rallied twice but didn’t have enough to knock off the Mountaineers.
This time Vanderbilt (4-1) began to regroup midway through the first half as it closed the gap to 26-24 with 9:42 to go. Grambling (1-5) pushed its advantage back to seven points a couple minutes later, but from there, the Tigers scored just 12 points over the next 18 minutes.
Vanderbilt took advantage and grabbed a 40-38 lead heading into halftime. The Commodores then opened the second half on a 24-5 run to lead 64-43 with 9:58 remaining.
“We didn’t take them for granted,” Jenkins said. “We just wanted it more in the second half.”
Everyone chipped in during the second half. Steve Tchiengang scored a career-high 12 points off the bench. Center Festus Ezeli and reserve Lance Goulbourne set career-highs with 13 and 12 rebounds, respectively. Ezeli, who had 11 points, had seven offensive rebounds in the first half.
The Commodores finished with 65 rebounds — the most in Stallings’ 12 years at Vanderbilt — with 37 coming after intermission. Grambling finished with just 26 rebounds and only eight after halftime.
“I think we asserted ourselves in the second half,” Stallings said. “We were much better in the second half and guys off the bench were productive.”
Vanderbilt scored 52 points in the second half without starting forward Jeffery Taylor. He took an elbow to the eye with 4:52 to go in the first and did not return. His left eye was scratched and his vision was blurry.
Taylor is scheduled to meet with an eye doctor on Thursday to gauge the severity of the injury.
Without their second leading scorer (15.3 points per game), the Commodores picked up the slack as 10 different players contributed points. Jenkins led the way with 22 and Brad Tinsley added 14.
For Grambling, Justin Patton scored 15 of his 20 points in the first half and Donald Qualls added 11.
The game might have been the wakeup call Vanderbilt needed with Appalachian State coming into Memorial Gym at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Mountaineers nearly knocked off Mississippi State last week, leading the Bulldogs in Starkville by nine with two minutes to go before losing 76-74.
If Vanderbilt leaves itself vulnerable, Appalachian State might just be the type of team to land the knockout punch.
“Sometimes we think our talent is going to win it for us,” Ezeli said. “Now we know we have to come out and play every night.”
• Vanderbilt reserve Joe Duffy almost scored in double-digit figures but settled for nine points.
The 6-foot-8 senior forward entered the game with just 30 points in his career, including only three last season. He scored a bunch in a flurry late in the game, hitting a 3-pointer and showing off a fancy spin move and setting a career-high in points in just four minutes of play.
“He was killing it out there,” Jenkins said. “His points per minute were crazy.”
• The Vanderbilt women’s basketball team will host its annual Thanksgiving Tournament on Friday and Sunday. This will be the 12th installment of the event at which the Commodores are 22-0 all-time.
No. 24 Vanderbilt (2-1) will open the tournament against Quinnipiac (0-3) at 5 p.m. on Friday. The Commodores barely held off Quinnipiac last year on the road, winning 75-74. Princeton and Southern California will follow at 7 p.m. The third-place and championship games will be played on Sunday afternoon.