In between, Cameron Tatum played one of the best basketball games of his life.
The fifth-year senior hit 5 of 9 shots, including 2 of 5 from beyond the arc, en route to 18 points in leading Tennessee to a 68-61 defeat of Vanderbilt before 22,172 boisterous fans at Thompson-Boling Arena. He also grabbed a couple of rebounds, dished out an assist, made a steal and helped limit Commodore superstar Jeffery Taylor to 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
The win, eighth in its last nine outings, moves Tennessee to 18-13 overall and 10-6 in league play. Pegged 11th among the 12 SEC teams in preseason polls, the Vols will finish either second or third, depending on the outcome of Sunday's Kentucky-Florida game.
As swan songs go, this one was a dream come true.
"Over the last couple of days I'd been daydreaming about what my last game would be like, and how I was going to play," Tatum said. "I couldn't have scripted it any better than this -- going out with a win and the possibility to be second place in the league after being picked next-to-last. You can't script it no better."
Essentially mired in a season-long scoring slump, the 6-foot-7 wing entered his final home game shooting just 35.4 percent from the field and averaging a mere 7.8 points per game. To find his stroke just in time for his final home appearance was a real blessing.
"It means a lot," he said. "It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life ... my last game in Thompson-Boling Arena. The crowd was rocking. I've got to give a shout-out to them. Twenty-two thousand was amazing. I don't think we've had 22,000 fans since the glory days of C-Lo (Chris Lofton). I was so happy to see that. For me, Naldo (Renaldo Woolridge) and Tyler (Summitt) to go out like that on Senior Night ... man, it was a beautiful thing."
Leading your team in scoring is always fun. So is beating in-state rival Vanderbilt. To do both in front of a packed house of animated zealots was almost more than Tatum could comprehend.
Characterizing the crowd as being "like the Kentucky game on steroids," he added: "It was an amazing atmosphere. I had chills throughout the whole game. I've still got them. I can't get them off of me."
Some fans questioned Tatum's value and his leadership as Tennessee's record dipped to 10-12 overall and 2-5 in SEC play at the end of January. Undaunted, he has rallied the Vols to an 8-1 stretch run that has them dreaming of an NCAA Tournament bid as they prepare for next week's SEC Tournament in New Orleans.
Asked what fueled the late-season surge, Tatum smiled.
"Just fire," he said. "Wanting to fight and wanting to go dancing ... wanting to get in that (NCAA) Tournament."
Tennessee certainly looked like an NCAA Tournament team the past nine games, especially Saturday against an ultra-talented, senior-dominated Vanderbilt squad that humiliated the Vols 65-47 five weeks ago in Nashville. Head man Cuonzo Martin said the Commodores "could be a Final Four team" but acknowledged that his troops "did a great job" against them on this particular afternoon.
Tennessee shot a so-so 43.8 percent from the field and an icy 18.8 percent (3 of 16) from 3. The Vols won by limiting the normally sharp-shooting Commodores to 39.0 percent (23 of 59) from the field and 33.3 percent (7 of 21) from 3-point range. The Big Orange won the backboard battle 40-30 and committed just 10 turnovers, 15 fewer than in the meeting at Nashville.
Tatum wasn't the only Vol clicking on Saturday. Sophomore point guard Trae Golden hit 4 of 5 shots from the field and 8 of 8 from the foul line en route to 17 points. He also grabbed 5 rebounds and dished out 4 assists without committing a turnover.
Mid-term freshman Jarnell Stokes, who had more turnovers (7) than points (6) in the Nashville meeting, redeemed himself in the rematch by producing 11 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks. Jeronne Maymon chipped in 12 points and 7 rebounds.
Three-point whiz John Jenkins scored 18 points to lead Vanderbilt but made just 5 of 15 from the field and 3 of 10 from behind the arc. Lance Goulbourne added 12 for the Commodores, who slip to 21-10 overall and 10-6 in SEC play.
Tennessee expanded a 30-29 halftime lead to 51-42 on a Tatum 3-pointer with 8:04 remaining but Vandy pulled within three points (56-53) on a basket by Taylor with 4:23 to go. Tatum made four consecutive free throws at this point, extending the lead to 60-53 with 3:22 remaining, and the Commodores never got closer than four points thereafter.
Overcome with emotion, Tatum knelt and planted a big kiss on the midcourt logo at the final horn.
"I did," he said. "It was my last time, so I had to make sure I said goodbye to Thompson-Boling Arena like that. It was spontaneous ... the emotion of this being my last game.
"Everybody had been saying it but I really didn't think (after five years on campus) it was going to be my last game. I've been here forever, so I thought I had at least two more years.
"It was an incredible feeling."
For a look at this InsideTennessee subscriber-only photo gallery from Danny Parker, scroll below (click to enlarge):