It’s been 59 years since Vanderbilt won the SEC tournament. That title also marked the program’s only appearance in the conference’s championship game.
The 20th-ranked Commodores can accomplish one of those milestones Saturday with a semifinal victory over defending tournament champion Mississippi State, which is again making a late push for the field of 65.
Vanderbilt earned wins over Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and Kentucky to capture the 1951 SEC tournament title, but success in the conference’s showcase has more often proved fleeting. The Commodores are 30-47 all-time but reached the semifinals for second time in coach Kevin Stallings’ 11 seasons Friday night.
Freshman guard John Jenkins scored 22 of his season-high 25 points in the second half of a 78-66 victory over Georgia. Jenkins, who was 5 of 8 from 3-point range, had 12 straight points to help the Commodores (24-7) pull away.
“Coach was telling me to go out there and be more aggressive,” he said. “That’s what I did. First time, I came out kind of slow, trying to get myself into it. Second half, I just really let loose.”
Vanderbilt will have the advantage of playing in front of its hometown crowd but also a quick turnaround for its semifinal matchup with about 15 hours between games.
“If they wanted to play (the semifinals) in an hour, we would be ready to play, and we would be willing to play,” Stallings said.
Mississippi State (21-10) won’t have that much longer of a rest but knows how to survive the grind.
Squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble last year, the Bulldogs won four times in four days to clinch their sixth berth in eight seasons. They were in the same position entering this tournament despite tying for the SEC West title, but Friday night’s 75-69 victory over Florida helped its cause.
“Our guys understand where we’re at,” coach Rick Stansbury said. “Our guys understand what we have to do.”
In their school record-tying fifth straight conference tournament win, the Bulldogs drained 10 3-pointers and shot 57.1 percent. Barry Stewart scored 17 points and was one of five players in double figures, but Mississippi State needed his five late free throws to hold on for the win despite their hot shooting.
The Bulldogs had one of their worst shooting performances of the season Feb. 3 at Vanderbilt (35.3 percent) but nearly rallied from a 14-point deficit in the final four minutes. Mississippi State got within one on Dee Bost’s 3-pointer with 28 seconds remaining, but Jenkins made two free throws and Bost missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer in Vanderbilt’s 75-72 win.
Jermaine Beal led the Commodores with 17 points, and A.J. Ogilvy added 16, while Bulldogs’ senior Jarvis Varnado finished with 12 points, 14 rebounds and nine blocked shots.
The NCAA’s all-time blocks leader (546) had swatted just five shots over three previous matchups with Vanderbilt.
“He’s got my shot a couple times,” Jenkins said, “We’ll get ready for him.”
Mississippi State hasn’t beaten Vanderbilt in Nashville since Dec. 28, 2004, but has won seven of 11 overall matchups. The Commodores, however, lead the series 72-43.