ATLANTA – The likelihood of Vanderbilt again stubbing its toe in the first round of the NCAA tournament could depend on the left foot of perhaps the nation's best pure shooter.
No wonder Vanderbilt fans were breathing a sigh of relief late Friday night after John Jenkins scored 29 points in an 87-81 SEC quarterfinal victory over Mississippi State at the Georgia Dome.
Jenkins led the SEC in scoring at 19.4 points per game during the regular season, but he sat out Vanderbilt's first-round victory over LSU on Thursday with a case of turf toe. He was a game-time decision Friday and admitted he was in pain for much of the game. But his ailing big left toe didn't prevent him from scoring 22 second-half points.
"I knew if I didn't keep fighting, I would let my teammates down," Jenkins said, "and that was the last thing I wanted to do."
Jenkins said he hadn't practiced or played since injuring the toe last week, when Vanderbilt (23-9) lost its regular-season finale to Florida, its semifinal opponent Saturday. He admitted feeling skeptical about how he would fare in his first game back.
Jenkins came on strong after halftime, going 7-of-11 from the floor – including 4-of-6 from 3-point range – in the final 20 minutes. He made the game's two most critical plays by hurting the Bulldogs from beyond the arc on back-to-back possessions.
The score was tied at 76 when Jenkins drew contact from Mississippi State's Dee Bost while attempting a 3-pointer. He hit all three free throws to put Vanderbilt ahead for good. After Mississippi State's Renardo Sidney scored to cut the lead to one, Jenkins sank a 3-pointer and got fouled by Riley Benock. He completed a four-point play with 1:35 left.
"I'm not sure what else we could have done differently to guard Jenkins," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "He steps up and makes huge shots."
Vanderbilt now must hope Jenkins' toe gets better. The Commodores need him if they're going to end their recent postseason frustration. In each of its past two trips to the NCAA tournament, Vanderbilt has lost in the first-round to a double-digit seed – to No. 13 Siena in 2008 and to No. 12 Murray State last season.
Even though Jenkins fought through the pain Friday, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings isn't taking anything for granted.
"I don't know if he is in the clear or not," Stallings said. "My anticipation would be that he will be more sore [Saturday] than he was today. … We'll have to figure it out when we wake up. But I will say that he was better today than I had anticipated he would be. At our shootaround, he really worked hard and stayed after and worked out to push himself and break a sweat. Maybe that has to become the game-day routine for him because that was pretty spectacular, what he did in the second half."