Jenkins returns, leads VU past Bulldogs 87-81

ATLANTA-- John Jenkins returned to the starting lineup Friday and exploded for 29 points to lead Vanderbilt to a scintillating 87-81 win over Mississippi State in late-night quarterfinal action at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The hair-raising win earned the Commodores (23-9) a rematch with SEC regular-season champion Florida, which eliminated Tennessee 85-74 Friday.

That semifinal matchup tips off at 2:30 pm Saturday (ABC-TV) at the Georgia Dome.

In a back-and-forth game that didn't end until just after midnight Eastern time, Jenkins took control in the final two minutes and scored nine of the Commodores' final 11 points to spark the team to victory. Jeffery Taylor added 20 points, and Brad Tinsley scored 12.

With the score knotted at 76-76 with 2:03 to play, Jenkins was fouled on a 3-point attempt and methodically knocked down all three free throws. Fouled again on his next 3-point attempt, Jenkins got the shot to fall and sank another free throw to stretch Vandy's lead to 83-78 with 1:35 left. Taylor knocked down a long jumper, and the Commodores hung on.

Oddly, Vanderbilt hadn't even known for sure until just before game time whether Jenkins would be available. The sophomore had missed Thursday's first-round win over LSU with a painful case of turf toe.

"I woke up feeling pretty good," said Jenkins. "And I knew I really wanted to play, so I kind of told the trainers that I wanted to play, and I went through a practice and walking, and it felt good. So I decided, I guess in the end, that I was ready."

"I thought if you're a college basketball fan at all, you had to enjoy that game," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "It was great game from start to finish, both teams. It was just tooth and nail the whole way, and neither could get away from the other."

It was a night for offense, as both teams hit over 50 percent from the field and over 47 percent from the 3-point line. But Vanderbilt had a big edge at the free throw line, getting 22 attempts (to MSU's eight) and downing 20.

"They had trouble guarding us, and we had trouble guarding them," said Stallings. "And we didn't rebound. We did not rebound the ball the way I hoped we would and the way I thought we would. That was disappointing.

"But it was just an offensive game, and we don't mind offensive games. We're happy to play them."

Mississippi State led 38-36 at halftime in a nip-and-tuck first half that saw eight lead changes. The lead continued to swing back and forth during the second half, with the Bulldogs taking a 65-60 lead when Ravern Johnson knocked down three straight free throws.

The Commodores would claw back to take a 5-point lead at 76-71 when Lance Goulborne buried a rare 3-point attempt from the corner. But the Bulldogs tied the game at 76-76 when 6-foot-10 Renardo Sidney ventured beyond the arc to drop in a 3-pointer, setting the stage for Jenkins' and Taylor's heroics.

"Those two guys were incredible," Stallings said. "You can't teach that stuff that those two guys were doing out there. We had some other guys step up and make big shots. I'm very, very proud of my team."

The most likely destination for Mississippi State (17-14) is the NIT. The Bulldogs' Sidney was outstanding in a losing effort, connecting on 10-of-16 shots for 22 points, including a pair of big 3-pointers, and 7 rebounds.

"I've never had to campaign for the NIT, so I'm not going to campaign for it," said State coach Rick Stansbury. "I'll say this, don't matter if we make it or not, we will be as good as a lot of those 32 teams in it. I don't think anybody would disagree with that."

After two tough games in two days, the Vanderbilt players now have a mere 15 hours to rest their tired bodies before Saturday's 2:30 pm tipoff. Florida defeated the Commodores twice in the regular season, 65-61 in an overtime thriller in Gainesville, and 86-76 just one week ago on Vandy's Senior Day.

"Obviously you get beat twice by a team, you want to play them again and get another shot at it," said Taylor. "Florida proved that they were the best team in the SEC in the regular season. We definitely look forward to the opportunity to play them again, and hopefully we can come out with a win."

Friday's win marked only the sixth time in school history Vanderbilt has reached the 23-win plateau, and the first time a Vandy team has ever done it back-to-back. With a win Saturday, Vanderbilt could equal last year's 24-9 record.

In other SEC Tournament action Friday, Alabama eliminated Georgia 65-59 behind JaMychal Green's 20 points and 13 rebounds; and Kentucky outlasted Ole Miss 75-66. The Crimson Tide and Wildcats will tussle in the noon CT semifinal Saturday (ABC-TV).

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