Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Turns out the Vanderbilt Commodores don’t need Festus Ezeli to win a tournament after all.
Behind a combined 27 points from John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor and a clutch jumper by Brad Tinsley with 4.5 seconds left, Vandy won a tight contest over previously unbeaten Oregon State, 64-62, to capture the Legends Class Monday night at the Izod Center.
“We want to win championships and this is the start, so we got it and we’re feeling good,” Jenkins, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, said after being named tournament MVP.
The Commodores were ranked No. 7 in the preseason AP poll even after the 6-11 Ezeli was handed a six-game suspension for accepting improper benefits.
But when he was knocked out of the lineup until mid-December with a knee injury and Vandy was routed by Cleveland State, expectations began to tumble. Vandy fell to No. 18 in the poll.
Yet here they are a few days before Thanksgiving having won three straight, including victories here over N.C. State and Oregon State.
“We had a lot of guys step,” Jenkins said. “And so when Fest gets back, it makes it that much easier for us to adjust. He is a huge force down low and helps us out a lot, so when he comes back it will be that much better.”
Ezeli averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds last season, and also swatted 87 shots. In addition to missing him on offense, Ezeli is not around to protect the basket, either.
“If any of us gets beat, he’s a big guy in there and he can kind of block shots or just change shots, so that’s tough for us,” Taylor said.
Vandy coach Kevin Stallings went off after Saturday’s win about how his team should get used to playing without Ezeli and not make that an excuse.
“Festus ain’t here,” Stallings said. “He ain’t gonna be here Monday. He’s not going to be playing Friday or the following Monday. He’s not going to be playing, so if our guys are — and I’m not suggesting that they are because I don’t think they are and I hope they’re not — if they’re sitting around and waiting for him to come back, then we got more problems than just our defense.”
“Festus will help that a little bit when and if he gets back, but we better get help before that or we’re going to have a bunch of numbers that go in that right hand column that we’re not very excited about.”
A year ago, Vandy was criticized for being unable to hold leads late. Now Taylor says his team is ready to win those games.
“I think we learned a lot from that,” Taylor said. “We’re an older team so we have experiences so we know what to expect and how to react in certain situations, so we’re feeling good.”
If Vandy can keep playing at this high level, they may be able to prove some of the doubters wrong.
And watch out when Ezeli finally does return.
“I think we’ll be a really tough team to beat,” Taylor said, “for anybody in the country.”
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.