NASHVILLE — With Tennessee down 59-47 entering the final seven minutes of Thursday’s SEC Tournament game against Vanderbilt, the Vols appeared to have the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of winning.
When Robert Hubbs hit a 3-pointer from the right wing, however, it proved to be the snowball that started an avalanche. That basket opened an incredible 20-2 finishing kick that turned the 12-point deficit into a mind-boggling 67-61 Vol victory at Bridgestone Arena.
“We needed a pick-up when we were down 12,” Hubbs said. “If I got a free look I was going to take it. Coach (Donnie Tyndall) said to treat this game like it’s free balls (no consequences), and that’s what we did at the end there. They went in, so I kept shooting ‘em.”
Making the victory all the more unlikely was the fact 7-seed Vanderbilt had won eight of its last 10 games while 10-seed Tennessee had lost 10 of its previous 13. With a season-ending loss staring them in the face, however, the Vols came through in the clutch.
“This is just the story of our entire season, how resilient we’ve been and how much we bounce back every day,” senior Josh Richardson said.
Playing not to lose, the Commodores shifted into milk-the-clock mode with seven minutes left. Result: They made just one of their last 10 shots, including zero of seven from 3-point range. Playing with nothing to lose, Tennessee shifted into desperation mode. Result: The Vols made six of their final nine field-goal tries, including all four 3-point attempts.
“I could sense that they kind of stopped attacking as much,” Richardson said of the Commodores. “They kind of started falling back a little bit, and that’s when we started stepping on it. I think they started playing not to lose, instead of to win.”
With Vandy playing tentatively, Tennessee began playing more aggressively. As Richardson noted: “We were sitting down on defense really well and making every shot tough.”
That’s partly because Tyndall switched from his standard 1-3-1 zone to a man-to-man in the closing minutes that clearly rattled the Commodores.
“Coach called ‘fire’ man-to-man, and everybody just plugged their own,” Devon Baulkman said. “Everybody just got focused, got in their stance and just grinded it out.”
Tennessee trailed for 34 of the game’s 40 minutes but did not panic when the deficit swelled to 12 points with 7:18 remaining. No wonder: This team has been through more ups and downs than a skyscraper elevator.
“The game’s never over if there’s time on the clock,” said junior Derek Reese, who contributed 6 points, 7 rebounds and 2 steals in 31 minutes. “We did a lot of running at 6 o’clock in the morning during the offseason, so when you get tough times that makes you dig down for your teammates. That’s what we did.”
|TENNESSEE COACH DONNIE TYNDALL|
No one dug deeper than Richardson. After making just two of nine shots in the first half, he went six for seven in the second half, finishing with a game-high 22 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals and just 1 turnover in 38 minutes at the point.
Hubbs was Mr. Clutch down the stretch, scoring nine of his 16 points in the 20-2 finishing kick. A pleasant surprise was the play of Devon Baulkman, who came off the bench to contribute 12 points, 6 rebounds, an assist and 2 steals in 23 spectacular minutes.
“Baulk was great,” Richardson said. “He was knocking 3s down. He was attacking the rim. He gave us a lot of offense today.”
That’s because Baulkman’s aching shoulder was feeling good for a change.
“It’s on and off,” he said. “You’ve just to grind it out. Tonight it was pretty straight. I was just playing with confidence and not thinking about it … driving the ball and being aggressive, like Coach told us to be.”
The Vols shot just 36.4 percent from the field en route to a 38-32 halftime deficit. The hill would’ve been a whole lot steeper if not for Baulkman, who produced 10 first-half points in 13 relief minutes.
“It definitely helps any time anybody comes off the bench and gives us real quick buckets – instant offense,” teammate Kevin Punter said. “That’s always great for any team.”
Vanderbilt built the lead to 13 points (47-34) with 16:54 remaining but Richardson scored nine points in an 11-0 spurt that whittled the gap to 47-45 with 12:18 left. The Commodores promptly answered with a 12-2 spurt that pushed the lead to 59-47 and set up the wild finish.
Hubbs started the rally with his 3-pointer from the right wing. Punter added a second 3 and Reese a third in a 9-0 spurt that narrowed the gap to 59-56 with 4:33 remaining. Hubbs hit a free throw, then scored on a drive to tie the score at 59-all with 3:18 to play.
Riley LaChance sank a 16-footer to give the Commodores a 61-59 lead with 3:07 left but they would not score again. Richardson drained a 15-footer to tie the score, then Hubbs hit a 3 from the left corner, giving the Vols a 64-61 lead with 2:13 to go.
Punter coolly drained both ends of a one-and-one with 1:06 remaining to push Tennessee’s lead to 66-61.
“Coach had confidence in me. I had confidence in myself, and my whole team was behind me,” Punter said. “You just go up there, take your time and knock them in.”
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