Vanderbilt started this season with lots of experience and expectations. Now the Commodores head into March with something that's been tough to come by the past few years.
A win on Senior Night. And a big upset at that.
John Jenkins hit six 3-pointers and finished with 22 points, and Vanderbilt beat No. 16 Florida 77-67 on Tuesday night to clinch a first-round bye in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Commodores had been 5-7 in the final home game each season under coach Kevin Stallings, who has tried a variety of approaches to handle the emotions of the night. This time, he said he warned them not to cry until after playing Florida, and he pointed to a damp yellow shirt as proof that they listened.
"It was a good night," Stallings said. "It's what you want a senior night to be because we beat somebody that is really good and had to play well to do it."
The Commodores (21-9, 10-5) outshot the nation's top 3-point shooting team behind Jenkins, and he easily topped his average of 3.9 3-pointers by hitting his first five from beyond the arc. They are tied with Florida for second in the SEC with one game left in the regular season.
"We were just trying to keep the ball out of his hands as best we could," Florida guard Brad Beal said of Jenkins. "We knew they ran a lot of screens for him. He comes off screens like non-stop. He's like Ray Allen, he's always coming off another screen and another screen and another screen. He's a terrific shooter and he got hot tonight."
Vanderbilt, which snapped a four-game losing streak to the Gators, can finish no worse than fourth in the SEC going into its finale Saturday at Tennessee. Jeffery Taylor added 18 points and Festus Ezeli had 11.
"Oh, no doubt that'd be great," Jenkins said of finishing second in the SEC. "We have to focus on Tennessee coming up."
Beal scored 16 points, Erving Walker 15 and Kenny Boynton 11 for Florida (22-8, 10-5), which has lost two straight since losing Will Yeguete to a broken left foot. The Gators still can finish second by themselves if they beat No. 1 Kentucky at home on Sunday.
"I was as disappointed as I've ever been as a coach watching our guys walking off the court in Athens," Florida coach Billy Donovan said of losing at Georgia on Feb. 25. "I felt the total opposite here tonight. I thought we competed. I thought we played hard against a very good team. With the injuries, there needs to be a resiliency and maturity to fight through that stuff."
The Commodores got off to an emotional start minutes after honoring seven seniors, four of them starters including Taylor and Ezeli, whose parents made the 20-hour flight from Nigeria to watch. They led for the first 30 minutes until Casey Prather dunked on a fast break to give the Gators their first lead of the game, 50-49 with 10:32 left.
The teams swapped the lead on the next five possessions, and Florida last led on a 3-pointer by Erik Murphy.
Taylor answered with a 3 from the left corner with 9:48 left, and Vanderbilt never trailed again even though the Gators didn't go away easily.
They twice got within a point, the last time on a 3-pointer by Beal with 5:41 left. Taylor hit his fourth 3, then Vandy made 12 of 14 at the free throw line over the final 5:04.
"We were just determined not to let this one slip away," Taylor said. "This game had a lot of significance for us, but also for us as a team. I mean it's really a nice signature win going into March. I think this one will really count for us with the NCAA tournament getting a seed and everything. It was a good game, and it was a really important game for us in many different ways."
Florida hurt Vanderbilt over and over with its press, forcing 12 turnovers the Gators turned into 17 points to keep the Commodores from running away from them. But the Commodores, who attempted only three free throws in the first half, did a better job of driving to the basket in the second and wound up outshooting Florida at the line 19 of 26 to 7 of 11.
They opened by hitting their first three shots and seemed ready to rout Florida in front of a sold-out crowd at Memorial Gym in taking a 10-2 lead. Florida missed five of its first six shots, including its first three attempts beyond the arc.
By the time Jenkins, the SEC's leading scorer, hit his first basket, a 3, and Ezeli added a layup, Vanderbilt had its biggest lead yet at 19-7 with 10:55 left.
Then the Commodores went cold, something they have struggled with this season, and this drought lasted nearly 5 minutes. Kedren Johnson hit a 3-pointer just before the shot clock expired with Stallings stomping his foot on the other end for a 22-14 lead with 5:58 left.
The Gators managed to tie it at 27 on Scottie Wilbekin's 3 only to watch Taylor answer with a 3 for a 30-27 halftime lead.
Official Basketball Box Score Florida vs Vanderbilt 2/28/12 8 p.m. at Nashville, Tenn. (Memorial Gym)