NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Darius Garland and Simi Shittu had some early jitters, but they disappeared quickly in their much-anticipated debuts.
Garland scored 24 points and Shittu added 18 points and 10 rebounds, leading Vanderbilt to a 92-79 win over Winthrop in a season opener on Tuesday night.
“Lots of anticipation, lots of energy in the building,” Commodores coach Bryce Drew said. “There were a little jitters at the beginning, but once we settled in it was really fun to watch. They’ve got great chemistry, which you can see out on the court.”
Garland, Shittu and Aaron Nesmith formed the most highly touted recruiting class in Vanderbilt history. Garland and Shittu were five-star prospects and Nesmith was four-star.
Garand and Shittu were both McDonald’s All-Americans last season. Garland, a second-team selection, was the only freshman named to the All-Southeastern Conference preseason team.
Garland shined in his first college game, running the floor decisively from his spot at point guard and making the game’s most electrifying play in the first half on a fast-break alley-oop pass to fellow guard Saben Lee, who finished with a dunk. Lee had five assists and Garland added four.
“Saben and me, we always have that connection,” Garland said. “Coach Drew even told us not to throw it if it’s like 50-50, but I knew he was going to go get it. So I just threw it anyway and he tore the rim down. I knew after that it was go time.”
Shittu also looked good, showing great quickness for a 6-foot-10 forward and he got the crowd of 8,387 at Memorial Gym going with several fast-break dunks. He has made a quick recovery after tearing his ACL in December, ending his high school career. Shittu underwent surgery in January.
“They’re special talents,” Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey said of Garland and Shittu. “I told Garland in the handshake line afterwards that at my time at Wake Forest I coached three pro point guards and I said, ‘Man, you’re right there.’
“They’re lottery-pick type talents. Garland has a special burst. He’s like a Ferrari or a Maserati. He can go from 0 to 100 in a split second. He just owns the game. Simi is so agile, skilled. He’s the real deal.”
Vanderbilt’s Matt Ryan scored 16 points, Saben Lee had 12 and Joe Toye scored 12. Ryan hit 4 of 11 shots from 3-point range, including three straight in the first half.
“That really brought energy to the gym and to the team,” Shittu said. “As soon as he hit those 3s, we came together and we knew we had the game from there.”
Nesmith had a quiet debut with four points on 1-of-4 shooting from the field.
Vanderbilt rallied from a seven-point deficit with a 20-2 run to take a 39-28 lead late in the first half.
Winthrop missed 10 of 11 shots from the field during the run.
It was an encouraging start for the Commodores’ offense, which averaged 72.4 points per game during last year’s 12-20 season that ended with a 13th-place finish in the SEC.
Nick Smith led Winthrop with 21 points, Josh Ferguson had 14 and Adam Pickett added 13.
Five Commodores scored in double figures as Vanderbilt hit 53 percent of its shots from the floor.
Vanderbilt improved to 60-7 in home openers at Memorial Gym, the SEC’s oldest arena at 67 years. The Commodores have won 12 straight home openers.
Vanderbilt is now 16-0 against the Big South Conference.
ANOTHER SEC FOE
Winthrop will face another SEC team later this month when it visits Kentucky on Nov. 21. The Eagles are 3-28 against the SEC and their last win came in 2012 over Auburn.
Winthrop: The Eagles led for much of the first 10 minutes before the Commodores took charge with a decisive run in the first half. Winthrop misses Big South Player of the Year Xavier Cooks.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores got off to a good start with their prized recruits in coach Bryce Drew’s third season.
Winthrop visits Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Saturday. SIU-Edwardsville was picked last out of 12 teams in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll.
Vanderbilt plays its first road game of the season Sunday at Southern California, the Pac-12 runner-up last year.
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