– The first-game jitters didn't last long for Vanderbilt's Darius Garland
. Early in Tuesday's matchup with Winthrop, the highly touted freshman point guard lobbed a pass into the paint and into the orbit of sophomore guard Saben Lee
, who promptly slammed the ball into the hoop with authority. Lee's dunk injected a jolt of much-needed energy into a rowdy crowd at Memorial Gymnasium.
The play, too, made Garland feel right at home.
"I knew after that," Garland said, "it was go time."
Garland's long and winding path to Vanderbilt hit a major milestone on Tuesday with his first game in a Commodore uniform. Vanderbilt sunk Winthrop, 92-79, at Memorial, and the Nashville product delivered on his own hype. Garland led all scorers with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting, chipping in four assists and three rebounds in his first-ever collegiate game. The freshman was a natural leader on the court, and he did it all in front of friends and family only a few miles away from his high school, Brentwood Academy.
Asked afterward to grade the Commodores' performance on Tuesday, Garland glanced to head coach Bryce Drew
seated in the adjacent seat. The freshman laughed.
"From a player's standpoint, I'll say a B-plus," Garland said. "But Coach Drew might have something different there."
Garland's debut was one piece of a victory that largely defined a new era of Vanderbilt basketball. The former five-star signee headlined five players in double-figures for the Commodores, including a big night from freshman forward Simisola Shittu
(18 points and 10 rebounds). Sharpshooting forward Matt Ryan
hit four 3-pointers to notch 16 points, while Saben Lee
(12 points) and Joe Toye
(12) added more firepower. For a team that lost three 1,000-point scorers off last year's roster, that was a good sign.
But Garland's first steps onto the court at Memorial Gym had been preceded by unique anticipation. One of the highest-rated recruits ever to sign with Vanderbilt, Garland had formed the centerpiece of Drew's latest signing class, a group that included Shittu and four-star guard Aaron Nesmith
. On Tuesday, Garland wasted no time in putting his touted skills to use; his speed and floor vision spearheaded Vanderbilt's fast-paced offense. The Dores racked up 11 fast-break points and kept Winthrop on its toes in transition after every rebound.
Despite a new mix of players, Drew said Vanderbilt's chemistry was evident in its first game, particularly with Garland at point guard.
"I thought these guys played a little bit beyond their years in the game tonight," he said. "… I love their energy. I love their heart. I love their passion. That energy brings excitement to the whole gym."
That energy helped Garland shake off the freshman nerves and pass his first test as a Commodore. The newcomer will face many more in the coming weeks; next, Vanderbilt ventures to Los Angeles for a road matchup with USC. But Garland's debut left little doubt as to the impact he could make at Vanderbilt.
That's the freshman's goal, as well.
"I'm here with my brothers," Garland said. "I'm trying to win games. I'm trying to bring the spark back to Memorial."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.