CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli came to coach Kevin Stallings during warmups and told him he was ready to play.
And Stallings is glad he did.
In his first game this season, the 6-foot-11 center scored 15 points in 21 minutes and Jeffery Taylor scored a career-high 30 points as the Commodores withstood a furious rally to beat Davidson 87-83 at Belk Arena on Wednesday night.
"At the shoot-around he didn't look good," Stallings said. "He had looked better in practice yesterday, but I had pretty much decided I wasn't going to play him. He came to me before the game and said, `Don't hesitate to put me in.' I said, `Are you sure?' And he said, `I'm positive."'
Ezeli didn't start, but entered the game early after Steve Tchiengang got in early foul trouble and was a huge presence inside with six rebounds and two blocked shots before fouling out in the final seconds. Ezeli missed the first six games of the season after being suspended by the university for accepting meals and a hotel room from a booster, and two more because of a right knee injury.
"We don't win this game if Festus doesn't play, I don't think there's any question about that," Stallings said. "We did not get good play from our starting bigs, especially early."
John Jenkins had 22 points for the Commodores (6-3).
De'Mon Brooks led Davidson (6-2) with 24 points, 18 of those in the second half.
Ezeli sprained two ligaments in his knee six weeks ago, but said he's getting close to 100 percent.
"It feels great," Ezeli said of his knee. "I have been itching to play for a while and so it was good to be back out there with these guys. That's why I'm here. I've felt a little useless on the side."
Taylor topped his previous career-high of 27 by converting 12 of 17 shots from the field, many of those on driving layups to the rim.
"They had a hard time guarding Jeff last year, too," Stallings said. "He's a bad matchup for them. He's a tough guy for them to guard. He can get to the rim and he was making his shots from the perimeter. He played a great game and was good on the defensive end, as well."
"Before the game we talked about being aggressive with the ball and trying to get in the lane, whether that be through the pass or the drive," Taylor said. "And coach and my teammates have talked to me about staying aggressive throughout the game. I feel like I did a good of that today. And also, shots were going in so that helps."
Vanderbilt led by as many as 18 in the second half, but Davidson pulled within 86-83 behind a clutch 3-pointer by J.P. Kuhlman and six free throws from Jake Cohen (18 points) in the final 31 seconds.
But Brad Tinsley sealed the win by hitting one of two foul shots with 8.9 seconds left.
Davidson began to make a run with about eight minutes left, something Wildcats coach Bob McKillop attributed to the energy from the crowd singing the school's signature song "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond, which has become school tradition.
The Wildcats climbed on Brooks' back and battled back into the game.
"We never stopped believing," Brooks said. "There's no such thing as a good loss, but we can take this loss and learn from it and get better."
If there was one downfall for Davidson it was their 3-point shooting.
They were 5 of 22 from behind the 3-point line.
"I think our length (on defense) really bothered them," Stallings said. "When you're not used to playing people with that kind of length, and they get to the shot a little closer, it makes it more of a challenge."
Afterward, McKillop said he was extremely proud of his team for hanging with a clearly more physically talented Vanderbilt team which blew them out by 28 points last year.
"They have a combination of so many factors," McKillop said. "They're not just big and athletic, they have a great IQ and they're very well coached and highly skilled. You don't have any doubts why there are NBA scouts on press row tonight."