With just over five minutes remaining in Friday night's season opener against Oregon, Vanderbilt's lead had dwindled to just five points after the margin had been 20 only a few minutes before. A year ago, a Vanderbilt team that struggled with its identity may have struggled to put the Ducks away down the stretch. Not this year.
Senior forward Jeffery Taylor, who finished with a gaudy stat line including 21 points, 11 rebounds and five steals, found his stride when his team needed it most, leading his team on a 12-0 run that sealed the victory.
"As a senior you kind of have to step up, try to make plays, and not just make offensive plays, but try to affect the game in a lot of different ways with offensive rebounds and steals and stuff like that," Taylor said. "Just as a senior, you know, guys look to you to step up and make plays, so that's just what I did."
While Taylor's senior leadership clearly showed, it wasn't the only story in the Commodores' 78-64 win over Oregon. Junior John Jenkins led all scorers with 24 points, including seven of his three-point shots. Jenkins struggled early, forcing up contested three-pointers and missing his first four shots from distance. However, he made five of his next seven, providing his characteristic offensive production and helping deliver a key non-conference victory.
Jenkins remembers all too well Vanderbilt's tendency to let teams back into games, and was determined not to let that happen this season.
"Finish… that was one of our key words last year that we couldn't get. All of us seniors and juniors said in the huddle that we have to pick it up some because the same thing happened last year," Jenkins said. "We talked about it all in the off season, finishing games and finishing games, and we did it so it feels real good to do that."
The victory comes without preseason All-SEC center Festus Ezeli, who is sidelined with an injury and serving a six-game suspension for impermissible benefits received involving a meal and a hotel room. In his place, senior forwards Steve Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne were a formidable presence in the paint, combining for four blocks in 48 minutes played. In his first minutes of NCAA basketball, redshirt freshman center Josh Henderson provided 11 minutes off the bench.
"It's obviously significant for us not to have him, but we don't have him and we won't for a while," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "We came out at the start of the second half and we were on point. We have to get better as a team and when Festus comes back, we'll hopefully be at full strength."
Another key to Friday's win was the play of true freshman Kedren Johnson, who committed no turnovers in 17 minutes while backing up senior Brad Tinsley at the point guard position. Although Tinsley finished the game third on the team with 13 points, only two of those came in the second half.
Center Tony Woods led the offensive charge for the Ducks, finishing with a team-high 12 points while shooting 5-7 from the field. Oregon's Jabari Brown was noticeably absent, scoring just seven points in 25 minutes.
The Commodores have a quick turnaround this weekend, hosting Cleveland State in Memorial Gym at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
Vanderbilt holds off Ducks, 78-64
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