NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Pelphrey has played and coached enough games in Memorial Gym to know how tough winning here really is.
Rotnei Clarke and reserve Michael Sanchez made sure it wasn’t a problem Saturday night.
Clarke scored a season-high 36 points and Sanchez had a career-best 20 as Arkansas upset Vanderbilt (No. 22 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP) 89-78, handing the Commodores’ their first home loss this season.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings congratulated the Razorbacks for a well-earned victory, especially Clarke and Sanchez.
“They got into a real comfort zone against us and thought they could score every time they got the ball, primarily because they did,” Stallings said. “It was disappointing the lack of, I don’t even know what I want to call it, the lack of something. We didn’t put forth to try a little better to get those guys stopped. But they were phenomenal, really great games by both.”
Vanderbilt (15-5, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) had won its first 11 at Memorial Gym, and the Commodores had a sold-out crowd cheering them on.
Arkansas (14-6, 4-3) hadn’t had much success here, winning on only three of its previous 10 trips. The Razorbacks also had lost to the first two ranked teams they played this season. That didn’t matter Saturday as they shot a season-high 57.4 percent.
They also outrebounded (30-22) and outdefended Vanderbilt. The Commodores only bettered Arkansas at the free throw line (25 of 26), which wasn’t nearly enough.
“If we can find some way to rebound that ball, that one stat will make us better,” Pelphrey said.
John Jenkins led Vanderbilt with 24 points. Festus Ezeli had 18 points, Jeff Taylor 13 and freshman Rod Odom had a season-high 12.
“It’s definitely different,” Jenkins said. “We’re not used to losing at home at all. We’re used to winning and shaking the crowd’s hand afterward and that’s not something we got to do tonight.”
Sanchez missed all but four games last season with plantar fasciitis and sat out the first 11 games due to a stress fracture in his foot. That may be why the Commodores simply weren’t ready for him. Sanchez wound up scoring more points than he had managed in the previous eight games combined (17), using his speed to dominate the Commodores in the paint.
Pelphrey had limited him to 11 minutes against Auburn as Sanchez works on his conditioning. He played 33 against Vandy.
“He was terrific,” Pelphrey said. “Some of the finishes that he had were needed at the moment, and then there was a lot of contact. It wasn’t like it was all done at the free throw line. He was finishing very good plays.”
Clarke had plenty of room to shoot, using pump fakes or driving only to step back and pick Vandy apart. He credited his teammates for their help.
“When I came off some screens, I had a good amount of room on some of the stepbacks. I realized they were playing me so close, it gave me space to be able to drive the ball. Drive and step back, and it really gave me a lot of space,” Clarke said.
The Razorbacks blew open a game that was tight in the opening minutes with five ties and seven lead changes, before Mardracus Wade’s free throw put them up for good at 15-14 with 13:28 left. They built the margin to as many as 11, led 43-36 at halftime and pushed the lead to as much as 16 in the second half.
The Commodores attended the funeral Friday for the mother of walk-on guard Chris Meriwether, hours after returning from a road win at Mississippi State on Thursday night. A moment of silence was held before tipoff, and the Commodores looked lethargic. Every time they tried to make a run, Clarke or Sanchez answered.
Jenkins scored the first nine points of the second half for Vandy, the last pulling the Commodores to 49-45.
That was as close as they would get. Julysses Nobles scored, and Sanchez drove for a layup. Clarke then hit consecutive 3s to push the lead to 59-47 as the Razorbacks hit seven of their first nine shots in the second half.
Vandy couldn’t get closer than eight the rest of the way, the last when Odum hit two free throws to pull to 79-71. Clarke responded with another 3 and finished 6 of 8 from beyond the arc against a Vandy defense that came in as the SEC’s best, holding opponents to 28.3 percent shooting.