NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings warned his Commodores they would get Middle Tennessee's best game Saturday. They proved to be up to the challenge in a game that had the feel of a first-round game at the NCAA tournament.
John Jenkins scored seven of his 26 points in the final 4:34, and Vanderbilt held off Middle Tennessee 84-77 Saturday for its 10th win in 11 games in a game that was much tighter than the final score.
"It took being ready, it took toughness, it took sustaining effort for 40 minutes for our team to win the game," Stallings said. "And we knew that's what we were going to have to do coming in because we knew this was their game. And I'm really proud of my guys, they delivered. They stepped up to the plate and played well."
Stallings scheduled this game to take advantage of a break in the Southeastern Conference schedule, and his timing couldn't have been worse with Middle Tennessee coming in having won 12 straight.
"We knew that it wasn't going to be easy today," Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor said. "The coaches really, really emphasized that in practice leading up to this game. It was good to get this one. They're a really good team, and I think it will be a quality win when the season's over.
The Commodores (16-5) handed Middle Tennessee (20-3) its first loss since Dec. 7. They outrebounded the Blue Raiders 28-22 and hit 24 free throws in 30 attempts to Middle Tennessee's 16 of 22.
Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis feels good about a stiff test for his team from the Sun Belt Conference, which already had wins at UCLA and Mississippi in what may wind up as the Blue Raiders' best season ever.
"They could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament; you go on their home floor and play the way we played today, I think it re-emphasizes what we thought," Davis said. "We've got a really competitive team, and we can play with most teams in college basketball."
Festus Ezeli scored a season-high 21 points and sank a career-best 11 free throws for Vanderbilt. Taylor added 17 points and Lance Goulbourne had 11.
LaRon Dendy led Middle Tennessee with a career-high 22 points. JT Sulton had 12 points before fouling out, and Bruce Massey and Marcos Knight each had 10.
Both teams came in streaking, with Middle Tennessee's streak tied for third-longest in the nation. The Blue Raiders, whose campus is about 40 miles southeast of Nashville, have never won at Memorial Gym in a series Vandy now leads 29-4, but they certainly came close in this game.
The teams swapped the lead eight times with 10 ties, and Vanderbilt was up 44-39 at halftime. Middle Tennessee led by as much as eight in the first half, taking advantage of a cold-shooting start by Vanderbilt, and the Commodores never led by more than six as the teams went back and forth most of the second half.
Jenkins, the SEC's leading scorer, took charge for Vanderbilt late. He put Vandy ahead three times on buckets, the last for good at 78-76 with 1:45 remaining as he drove the baseline for a layup off a bounce pass from Brad Tinsley. The Blue Raiders didn't make it easy, slapping at the ball and forcing Jenkins to go up strong.
"He was just kind of stuck," Jenkins said of Tinsley at the start of the play. "He picked up his dribble and so we've got to get outlets fast. My man kind of overplayed me, so I back-cut him real quick and I was able to get a layup."
Then Goulbourne stole a bad pass by Dendy with the shot clock ticking down, and Ezeli scored on a layup for an 80-76 lead that was the biggest by either team since nearly midway through the half. Tinsley, who sat out nearly nine minutes after picking up his fourth foul with 15:32 left, added a pair of free throws, and Goulbourne made two more for the final margin.
It was a nice finish for the Commodores, who scored the first five points, then wound up hitting four of their first 16 shots.
"Their veteran attitude, their confidence and their experience kicked in," Blue Raiders guard Bruce Massey said. "They made plays down the stretch that we're not really used to in these types of games. Veteran teams do that, so now we know what we need to work on going back to practice."
Middle Tennessee had no problems shooting in Memorial Gym with the benches on the end lines. The Blue Raiders shot 57.4 percent (27 of 47) for the game and were hotter in the first half. Sulton dunked and let out a big scream after drawing a foul on a bucket that gave the Blue Raiders their biggest lead at 26-18 with 3:23 left.
Jenkins and Taylor, two of the SEC's top three scorers, struggled early. Jenkins hit only one of his first six shots, while Taylor was 2 of 7. Ezeli carried the Commodores by scoring 13 first-half points and hitting all seven attempts at the free throw line.
Middle Tennessee led 33-28 when Sulton went down hard after grabbing a defensive rebound and had to be helped to the bench with 5:01 left. Dendy was hurt a couple of seconds later and went to the locker room with a towel to his forehead. He didn't return until 1:30 remained, and Vandy went on an 11-2 run, capped by a bucket by Goulbourne.
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter @TeresaMWalker