NASHVILLE – With 12 days separating Vanderbilt’s matchup with Middle Tennessee on Wednesday and its next game against Arizona State, the Commodores’ needed a dose of confidence before final exams take over their schedules.
They got it with a 79-51 win over the Blue Raiders at Memorial Gymnasium.
“I thought it was our best effort and execution on the defensive end,” Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said. “Offensively, we shared the ball much better, took better shots and it resulted in a much better shooting percentage for us.”
The Dores looked lifeless in their last time out, an 80-65 loss to NC State in Miami last Saturday. But against Middle Tennessee, Vanderbilt put a full team effort on display. Five players scored at least nine points for the Commodores, led by Simisola Shittu’s 15 points. The Dores shot 47 percent from the floor, 43 percent (9-21) from 3-point land and a remarkable 18-19 from the free-throw line.
But Vanderbilt seemed more proud of its defense, which limited Middle Tennessee to 36 percent shooting, including 14 percent (2-14) on 3-point attempts.
“We put in a lot of work on the defensive end,” guard Max Evans said. “It all just translated to the game.”
A team-wide effort is imperative now more than ever for Vanderbilt as it looks to find its identity following a season-ending injury to freshman Darius Garland. Last week, eight Commodores scored in double-figures in a 120-85 win over Savannah State. The Dores looked just as deep on Wednesday, outscoring MTSU 28-6 in bench points and dishing out 13 assists.
Vanderbilt used that recipe to keep building upon its lead. A two-handed slam by Joe Toye gave the Commodores their largest lead of the game, 65-33, with 8:40 to play. The Dores, who still smarted from last week’s loss to NC State, got a little something from everyone on Wednesday. That collaboration helped ease the frustration that lingered in the locker room.
“It was a tough loss, not just because of the loss but because of the effort,” forward Matthew Moyer said of the NC State game. “This win and what you saw tonight is 100 percent [on] the coaching staff. They prepared for this and got us ready. We knew we needed to come out with effort and energy.”
A jolt of momentum should serve this roster well as it embarks on a 12-day stretch without a game. Vanderbilt’s players will focus on final exams for most of next week. Then, they will return to the court Dec. 17 vs. Arizona State at Memorial Gym, the first of four straight nonconference matchups ahead of their SEC opener against Ole Miss on Jan. 5.
Drew said the Commodores continue to find their rhythm without Garland, a key piece to their puzzle from the season’s beginning. But he said the win over Middle Tennessee showed the top-to-bottom team Vanderbilt can be.
“As they stayed focused, they developed more freedom and focus and started to make plays,” Drew said. “…We had a certain identity with [Darius]. This team will develop their own identity.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.