Vanderbilt smothers Auburn, 65-35

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The Vanderbilt Commodores finally are healthy, and they look more like the team expected to be among the nation’s best with each passing victory.

John Jenkins scored 17 points and Jeffery Taylor added 16 as Vanderbilt routed Auburn 65-35 Saturday in opening Southeastern Conference play with the Commodores’ fifth straight win.

“You never want to sound like you’re making excuses, but we’ve had consistent practice time with our main guys for at least since Christmas ended, and that makes a big difference,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Up to that point, we hadn’t had our main guys in practice all season long.”

Vanderbilt started the season ranked No. 7 only to drop out with four losses, two in overtime to ranked opponents in Xavier and Louisville, with senior center Festus Ezeli out with a sprained right knee. Stallings has had players miss practice time with concussions and sprained ankles too.

Ezeli made his second start of the season Saturday, and the Commodores (11-4, 1-0) improved to 49-11 all-time in SEC openers at Memorial Gym. They did it with one of their best shooting performances this season in the first half in opening up a 38-19 halftime lead. They hit 50 percent (12 of 24) from the floor and were even better beyond the arc hitting 9 of 16 (56.3 percent). Five different players hit at least one 3 in the half.

Vanderbilt defenseVanderbilt also showed off some defense holding Auburn to the fewest points scored this season. For Vanderbilt, it was the fewest points allowed since a 33-31 loss to Mississippi State on Jan. 30, 1982.

“When Fes comes back into the mix, it gives us three guys we think are really outstanding defenders so we look better defensively,” Stallings said.

Brad Tinsley added 12 points and Ezeli grabbed eight rebounds and scored four points.

Jenkins, the SEC’s leading scorer, also hit 5 of 8 from 3-point range. He said the players are rallying together to play better offensively and defensively.

“We want to be great so just do everything,” Jenkins said.

Auburn (10-5, 0-1) now has lost four of six overall, and the Tigers have lost five straight SEC openers and eight of their last nine. Leading scorer Kenny Gabriel was held to a season-low two points, well off his 12.6-point average per game. Chris Denson led Auburn with seven.

Tigers coach Tony Barbee took much of the blame for how his players responded.

“We got punched in the mouth tonight, and we went away,” he said. “If a team is mentally and physically tough, they get punched in the mouth and respond. We are not responding.”

Gabriel said the Tigers had chances to hit shots and just missed. He picked up his second foul within the first two minutes, which didn’t help either.

“It’s just disappointing, because we all know that we’re better than what we’re playing like right now,” Gabriel said. “We just have to look in the mirror, realize we are where we are, and then just go out there and play every game tough.”

The Tigers shot 27.3 percent (15 of 55) for the game. Vanderbilt outrebounded the Tigers 42-34 with the Commodores’ lone struggles coming at the free throw line where they shot 8 of 16 (50 percent).

The Tigers couldn’t have started off more poorly with four fouls before Varez Ward hit their first bucket with a 3 for Auburn’s lone lead of the game. Ezeli answered with a pair of free throws to tie it up, and Tinsley finally hit a jumper with 17:09 left for a 5-3 lead with Vandy’s first shot attempt that put the Commodores ahead to stay.

Once the Commodores started shooting, they seemingly couldn’t miss.

Jenkins hit a 3 followed by Taylor’s 3. Vanderbilt hit eight of its first nine shots and its first five 3s before Jenkins’ first miss with 9:20 left. Even when it looked like Vanderbilt might not get a shot off on one possession with Tinsley nearly losing the ball, the senior guard grabbed it back and tossed it up for a 3 as the shot clock buzzer sounded. Taylor added another for a 30-11 lead with 7:23 left.

“It’s demoralizing when you’re sitting on the other bench and something like that happens,” Stallings said.

Lance Goulbourne hit a 3 to put Vandy up 38-19 at halftime, then the Commodores picked up where they left off in the second half in a 14-2 run. Jenkins’ long jumper put Vandy up 49-21 with 16:29 left.

Barbee tried to stem the scoring, taking two timeouts within the first 4 minutes of the second half. It didn’t help. Vanderbilt just kept building the lead. The Tigers managed to trim the lead to 22 but got no closer. Dai-Jon Parker’s 3 with 4:18 left gave Vanderbilt its biggest lead at 63-33 with the 13th 3-pointer.