NASHVILLE — For a second in time, Tennessee’s season lay in the hands of Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin IV.
Or more accurately, Baldwin’s fingertips.
The Vols were clinging to a 67-65 lead as the final 8 seconds peeled off the clock, and Baldwin sped down the court unimpeded and drove the lane to lay in what looked to be the game-tying basket at the buzzer.
But replay showed the ball still clung barely to his fingers as the final second expired, stunning the announced crowd of 12,270 and sending Tennessee’s bench into an uproar. The No. 12 seed Vols (15-18) upset their rival Vanderbilt to advance to the quarterfinals Friday against No. 4 seed LSU and freshman sensation Ben Simmons.
“I’m just excited for these guys, our seniors,” Rick Barnes said. “They played their hearts out. Everyone who came in today did a great job for us, but I don’t know what else you could ask from these guys here coming in.”
It almost didn’t seem like Tennessee would need to an epic finish after what it did in the first 20 minutes. The Vols stormed out to a comfortable 12-point lead at halftime before No. 5 seed Vanderbilt began slowly chipping away. The Commodores shot 60 percent from the field in the second half as they began to make their comeback. Joe Toye buried a corner 3-pointer late in the second half to put Vanderbilt up 57-56 for the first time since the opening minutes of the game.
The Vols built a 63-59 lead with 1:22 to play, but Luke Kornet drilled a 3 to get his team back in the game. Tennessee hit four free throws down the stretch, setting up a 3-pointer by Matthew Fisher-Davis with 8.6 seconds to play in the game to set the stage for one last opportunity.
It fell just short, preserving Tennessee’s second SEC Tournament win in under 24 hours.
“This is probably the scariest exciting game I’ve ever played in in my life,” said Derek Reese, who finished with seven points and 10 rebounds. “I can’t even talk right now. I couldn’t believe it. I honestly thought he made the shot in time.”
Detrick Mostella paced the team with 18 points coupled with six rebounds. Freshman Admiral Schofield added 12 points of his own to go along with eight rebounds, while Armani Moore notched 18 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Barnes used just seven players in the win.
“It’s just toughness and heart,” Schofield said. “Our game plan was to switch everything, and we just went out and executed what coach wanted to play.”
Despite being outmatched by three 7-foot players, the Vols tied Vanderbilt in the paint with 30 points apiece and barely lost the rebounding battle, 39-37. The Commodores turned the ball over 12 times — 10 in the first half — which Tennessee converted into 17 points.
“I think the most important thing right now for our team is just to make sure that we replenish our bodies and get off our legs and make sure that we mentally lock in and come ready to play tomorrow,” Moore said.
Playing three games in three days doesn’t appear like it will be considered a factor for the Vols, who won back-to-back games for the first time since December.
It’s win or go home time in Nashville.
“Everybody makes a big deal out of the fatigue factor,” Barnes said. “They’re playing basketball. They’ve got to want to go out. There’s things a lot tougher in life to have to get up to do than come here and play a 40-minute game.”