NASHVILLE — From the thunderous ovation he received during pregame introductions to the infectious smile he flashed in the postgame press conference, this night belonged to Darius Garland.
The former Brentwood Academy star made his anxiously-awaited, hugely-hyped debut for Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in front of amped-up Commodore crowd — and Garland delivered the goods.
Serving as the cornerstone for Vanderbilt’s revamped roster, Garland scored a game-high 24 points and racked up a large number of “did-you-see-that?” moments while leading the Commodores to a 92-79 season-opening win over Winthrop at Memorial Gym.
Garland finished 9-of-15 from the floor, including 3-of-7 from 3-point range, and also contributed four assists, three rebounds and two steals while logging 36 minutes of playing time.
Add it all up, and it equaled a dandy debut for Garland, who performed more like a seasoned senior than a fearful freshman. And apparently, his confidence level was soaring as much as his approval rating.
When asked if he had any butterflies floating around under his jersey, the five-star recruit quickly put the topic to rest.
“No. Not at all,” he said. “I’m here with my brothers, trying to win games. I’m not worried about anything else — I’m just trying to win games.”
If Tuesday’s contest was any indication, he appears determined to have a little fun while he’s at it. Whether he was attacking the rim or throwing a look-away pass, his inaugural performance was grade-A Garland.
On one play, he floated to the rim for a finger roll. Moments later, he hung in the air and maneuvered around two defenders for a reverse layup. Soon, he drained a 3. His highlight reel also included a play in which he shook a defender with a cross-over dribble, pulled up and hit a midrange jumper as the buzzer sounded to end the first half.
“He was fun to watch tonight,” said Brentwood Academy head coach Hubie Smith, who was among the large number of Garland’s friends, family and fans who came to the game. “I felt a buzz in the air whenever he got the ball in transition — just like it was in high school — because everyone knew he was about to make a great play. He doesn’t look like a typical freshman playing basketball.”
Vanderbilt is looking to rebound from last year’s 12-20 season. And with a new-look lineup — which not only includes Garland, but also features touted freshman Simisola Shittu and Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan — the Commodores seem destined to bring a new vibe to Nashville.
“That’s what we came in for — to bring that spark back to Memorial Gym,” said Shittu, who finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said he sensed the Commodore fans arrived at Memorial Gym expecting to see something special. And they got what they wanted.
“(There was) lots of anticipation, lots of energy in the building,” Drew said. “There were a little jitters at the beginning, but once we settled in, it was really fun to watch.”
Vanderbilt trailed 22-13 near the midway mark of the first half before the Commodores put together a 20-2 run, which featured three consecutive 3-pointers from Ryan, to take control for good.
“These guys have really been working hard, and they have great chemistry,” said Drew. “I thought they played a little bit beyond their years tonight.”
Garland said he believes Vanderbilt is going to get better with time.
“We’re a really young team, trying to get used to each other and used to the system,” he said. “But when it comes along, we’re going to be really good.”
Garland helped ignite Vanderbilt’s perimeter attack on Tuesday. After the Commodores missed their first seven shots from behind the arc, Garland knocked down a 3-pointer. The shot extended Vanderbilt’s 3-point streak to 1,032 games (the Commodores have made a 3-pointer in every game since the 3-point line was implemented in the 1986-87 season) and set the tone for some hot shooting. Vanderbilt made 10 of its final 23 attempts (43 percent) from long range after the slow start.
Garland also did his part when the ball wasn’t in his hands.
“Defensively, I thought he was really good,” said Smith. “And that is what I was really proud of. Freshmen don’t generally guard very well. But he was really good. I think he really understands what you have to do on that end of the court, and I think he is ahead of other guys at that stage.”
Roughly eight months ago, Garland was competing against high schoolers, and was helping lead Brentwood Academy to its fourth straight state title.
Now, after just one game, he already looks completely comfortable at the next level.
“What’s so scary is, it looks like he’s still playing high school ball,” said Smith. “He’s that good.”
NOTES: The Commodores have now won 12 straight home openers. They are 60-7 all-time in home openers at Memorial Gym. … Vanderbilt plays its first road game of the season on Sunday at USC.