Vanderbilt overcomes early jitters to open season with 92-79 win over Winthrop

Photo by Shun Ahmed

The Darius Garland and Simisola Shittu Show started off like many new shows do in their pilot episode: with some jitters.

But once those jitters were gone, the Vanderbilt Commodores’ highly-touted freshmen looked ready for primetime and took down the Winthrop Eagles 92-79 at Memorial Gym, ushering in a new era of Commodore basketball.

Garland led the way with 24 points, and Shittu was not far behind with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Matt Ryan hit four three-pointers on 11 attempts, including three in a row midway through the first half, in his Vanderbilt debut.

Despite some early nerves, the Commodores showed flashes of elite skill and finesse throughout the game. Shittu started the game with an emphatic slam in the lane, and Garland showed off some electrifying skill by throwing an alley-oop to fellow guard Saben Lee and going up-and-under for a layup a few minutes later.

However, the team found itself down early on the scoreboard.

“For me, it was frustrating,” Garland said of the start to the game. “For a team standpoint, I think it was a couple of jitters. Like Coach [Bryce] Drew said, we missed long a couple of times, but after Simi’s dunks and the lob I threw to Saben and after Matt Ryan hit three threes in a row, it was over from there.”

Ryan’s run, coupled with some more electric play from Shittu and Garland, loosened up the new-look Commodores. Vanderbilt’s players started playing like basketball players and were able to get loose a bit, running the ball in transition a lot more.

“When Simi gets off the glass, everybody knows to run,” Garland said. “He’s going to find people or he’s going to hit a bucket.”

Shittu settled down and showed off his floor-stretching ability with a couple of drives to the paint for layups reminiscent of a point guard. Winthrop pushed hard at the end of the half, but Garland took over to finish the first 20 minutes with four-straight points, including a marvelous buzzer-beater to close out the half up 47-40.

The buzzer-beater, plus the many other highlight-reel plays, brought the packed student section to its feet. Shittu could be seen firing up the crowd and displaying plenty of emotion on the floor.

“That’s what we came here for, to bring the spark back to Memorial Gym,” Shittu said. “So, seeing everybody, seeing people in our dorm, seeing our friends that we see on a day-to-day basis was fun. It was fun to get them rowdy.”

Part of the reason why the Commodores were able to settle in and cruise through the second half was the play of veterans Clevon Brown and Joe Toye. Brown finished with six rebounds, four of them on the offensive glass, and Toye put up 12 points in the winning effort.

Photo by Kevin Nguyen

Combining the veteran players who know the system with the high-flying freshmen proved to be a recipe for success.

“It’s so new for Simi because this is a totally new offense and team, and he’s only been with us technically for four weeks,” Drew said. “Clevon, I thought, brought stability with spacing, just in doing things that he should be doing out there, not trying to do too much. I thought he had a really good game for us with his four offensive rebounds and two blocks. Joe has been fantastic, he’s been one of our best players in scrimmages. Again, he’s playing with a lot of confidence, a lot of freedom. He’s going to be a big part for us if we’re going to win games.”

While the effort was not perfect, the Commodores still showed enough to have fans salivating for more as the season gets underway. Given how little time the team had to come together, and how little experience some of the best players on the floor have, there’s nowhere to go but up from here.

Photo by Kevin Nguyen

“Coming into the game, we have a lot of guys playing for the first time,” Drew said. “It’s remarkable what Simi’s doing. He hasn’t played in a real game since last December, and he’s only been cleared for about four weeks. To see him move and jump and play how he’s playing, I think it’s just remarkable.”

“We’ve probably had our whole team together, like the guys who played tonight, probably only about two and a half or three weeks of practices because other guys have been out with some nicks and bangs and stuff. To see them be able to play that well together with the short amount of time that they’ve practiced is encouraging from a coach. There’s a lot of things we can get better at: our execution, our defense, our help side. But I love their energy, I love their heart and I love their passion.”

Vanderbilt travels to Los Angeles to take on USC on Sunday.

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