Vanderbilt protected its home court by sweeping its last three games at Memorial Gym.
The 18th-ranked Commodores can now take a big step in separating themselves from the pack in the SEC East Division with a victory at Georgia on Wednesday night.
Vanderbilt (18-6, 6-4) and Georgia (17-7, 6-4) are tied for second, 2 1/2 games behind No. 14 Florida but also two games ahead of last-place South Carolina. The top two teams in each division get byes into the SEC tournament quarterfinals, and the Commodores will have to earn that top-two finish with success on the road.
Coach Kevin Stallings’ team is 0-3 on the road against East opponents, losing to South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida by a combined 15 points. The Commodores play four of their next five outside Nashville in what is essentially a make-or-break stretch to claim a coveted bye.
“We’ve got to go on the road and face a good Georgia team and it will be a tremendous challenge,” Stallings said. “With tremendous challenge comes tremendous opportunity. There’s a lot at stake in the game as far as placement in the conference and divisional race.
“The better seeds you get in the conference tournament, the better it allows you to do in the conference tournament which allows you to do better in the NCAA tournament.”
Vanderbilt carries momentum into Athens after holding off then-No. 18 Kentucky 81-77 on Saturday. John Jenkins battled through a sprained right shoulder to hit six 3-pointers and score a career-high 32 points for the Commodores, continuing his solid play over the past month. “He has become a much better cutter over the past couple of months,” Stallings said of Jenkins, who is averaging an SEC-leading 19.8 points. “He’s able to cut and move for long periods of time without getting tired and he’s able to shoot without fatigue playing a part of it, which is significant. He’s gotten better off the dribble, he’s gotten to the foul line.”
The sophomore guard has averaged 22.0 points and 55.7 percent shooting - 46.0 percent from 3-point range - in his last eight games. Jenkins, though, went 0 of 7 from 3-point range and 0 of 9 overall in a 72-58 defeat at Georgia on Feb. 6, 2010.
Under second-year coach Mark Fox, the Bulldogs have quietly stayed in the mix in the East as they chase their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008. Unlike Vanderbilt, Georgia has an intradivision road win, beating the Gamecocks 60-56 on Saturday after nearly blowing a 23-point second-half lead.
Trey Thompkins blocked a potential tying 3-pointer for the Bulldogs, who had a defensive lapse in a similar situation last month that led to a 104-91 double-overtime home loss to Florida.
“I asked them if they trusted their defense because I do,” Fox said. “I didn’t ask them if they wanted to foul. I knew exactly what I was going to do, but I wanted them to reaffirm their trust to each other.”
Thompkins and Leslie have formed a potent inside-outside duo for Georgia, combining to average 30.8 points and 14.6 rebounds. The pair had 34 points and 26 boards in a 73-66 loss at Vanderbilt on Jan. 12, during which the Bulldogs shot 34.7 percent and were outscored 25-11 at the foul line.