NASHVILLE—His assistants kept telling Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings that sophomore guard John Jenkins needed a breather against Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
"We need to get him out," they'd tell him as Jenkins' minutes grew and the game shrank inside a manic Memorial Gymnasium.
Countered Stallings: "We'll get him out tomorrow."
Few smarter words have ever been spoken. Even at academic-rich Vanderbilt.
Playing 39 minutes and 30 seconds of the full 40 minutes -- "Thirty seconds, you kept the time?" Stallings joked—Jenkins totaled a career-high 32 points to lead VU to an 81-77 victory over the 18th-ranked Wildcats.
The Vanderbilt media relations staff should begin launching a Heisman-type campaign any minute now for the Hendersonville resident to win both the Southeastern Conference player of the year award and first-team All-America honors. Thanks largely to Jenkins, the 23rd-ranked Commodores now stand 18-6 overall and 6-4 in the league.
"There were some of those shots he hit when we were all over him," said UK coach John Calipari, whose team is 17-7, 5-5. "In the end I said, 'Let's play him like a box-and-one.' But nothing worked."
Other than finding a way to throw a locked box on top of Jenkins, it's becoming questionable whether any defense works against the SEC's leading scorer (22.3 in league games, 19.8 overall).
Saturday was the 14th time he's scored 20 or more points. Not once has he finished with fewer than 10. Beyond that, he's hitting 89 percent of his free throws and over 41 percent of his 3-pointers.
And this was a Vanderbilt team that took the court less than 38 hours from the close of its Thursday night home win over Alabama. Kentucky hadn't played since Tuesday's victory over Tennessee.
"He's just constantly moving," UK freshman Brandon Knight said of Jenkins. "You give him just a little space and he's putting it up and he's hitting."
There was never much space between the Cats and Commodores on the scoreboard. UK briefly led by eight (19-11) early in the opening half. Vandy grabbed a seven-point cushion in the opening minute of the second half.
But most of the afternoon Jenkins was shooting his teammates in front by two or three points and Kentucky was riding the back of freshman forward Terrence Jones (25 points, nine rebounds, three blocks) to keep the outcome in doubt.
"I mean this in a good way ... [Jones] is a beast," Stallings said. "He's just a terrific player."
And that he is, a precocious talent near certain to become the latest in Calipari's lengthening line of one-and-dones headed to the NBA.
But Jones proved little more than a footnote next to Jenkins, who ignored a sore right (shooting) shoulder well enough to hit 11 of 17 shots overall and six of 10 3-pointers, scoring 18 in the final half.
"It definitely hurts right now," Jenkins said as he patted the ice pack covering his sore wing. "Put heat on it at halftime; it hurt really bad."
But in the final 20 minutes he stayed hot enough to chill UK comebacks time and time again in delivering the Big Blue its fifth SEC road loss in six games this season.
Not that Jenkins was the sole reason for this Commodores win. Stallings confused UK late by going to a 2-3 zone. VU junior center Festus Ezeli scored 14 points, pulled in seven rebounds and hit all four of his free throws after knocking down just 37 percent from the charity stripe a season ago.
"I was on the line yesterday for about an hour shooting free throws," said the Nigerian native. "It's just about getting in a gym and figuring out your touch. I'm tired now, but Coach said we could be tired after 3 o'clock."
Then there was Steve Tchiengang, the Cameroon native who hit both his 3-pointers (he's hitting 44 percent for the season) on his way to 12 points off the bench.
"And Steve hasn't played the 4 [strong forward] position all season," Stallings said.
Until Saturday morning, Jenkins' mother, Melodye, had never requested him to score a certain number of points, either.
"But she texted me, '25 or more,'" Jenkins said. "She never says that. I guess Mom knows best."
Especially when the head coach knows well enough to rest his shooting star after the game.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...