Tennessee (14-12, 6-9) extended a 35-30 half-time advantage to an 11-point lead at 46-35 midway through the second half, only to see Vanderbilt (19-7, 8-7) close the gap to 46-43 behind an offensive surge provided by senior forward Matt Freije who finished with a game-high of 28 points in his farewell appearance at Memorial Gymnasium.
A three-pointer by C.J. Watson pushed UT ahead 51-45 with eight minutes remaining in the contest, but Tennessee failed to score in its next eight possessions and the count remained at 51-45 until a pair of Commodore free throws broke the spell with 3:59 left.
Vanderbilt eventually closed to 51-50 on Freije's three-point play before Brandon Crump's jump hook ended Tennessee's improbable scoring drought that featured four missed free throws including two front ends of one-plus-one attempts by Scooter McFadgon — the SEC's leading free-throw shooter and the nation's No. 4 foul shooter at 92 percent. McFadgon hit only 1-of-4 for the contest and UT's 5-of-12 night from the charity stripe was a season low.
McFadgon also missed a three-point attempt with 30 seconds left with Tennessee trailing by a basket. An ensuing intentional foul was called on Crump and Russell Lackey hit both free throws to pad the cushion to 59-55. Vandy's Scott Hundley added two free throws after the Dores were awarded possession following the intention foul and Vanderbilt led 61-55 with 25 seconds remaining.
A three-pointer by McFadgon cut the lead in half with only seven ticks remaining on the clock. Tennessee sent Hundley back to the line and he missed both free throws giving the Vols a chance to tie. However Watson was fouled before he could get a shot off and the game ended on UT's fifth straight missed free throw.
The Vols were actually up by 14 points in the first half, 26-12 — before Vanderbilt battled back with a 9-0 run — but Tennessee managed to hold the lead until the Dores took over in the last three minutes.
"It was a competitive game," said Watson, who led the Vols with 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and only one turnover in 37 minutes of play. "We let it slip away at the end."
It was certainly the first time on the road that Tennessee has been in a position to let one slip away at the end. And it was UT's only SEC road loss that was under double digits. The Vols came into the Wednesday's contest as 13-point underdogs.
"It's late in the year and we're not into moral victories," Tennessee's Buzz Peterson said on his post game interview broadcast by the Vol Network. "But I was proud of our effort.
"We want some post season some way. I'm excited about where our ball club is headed."
Tennessee shot 51 percent for the game and won the battle of the boards 33-28, but Vanderbilt made eight more free throws (13-of-22) and only half as many turnovers with six.
"If you told me before the game we would shoot 51 percent, hold them to 39 percent and out rebound them by five I would have liked our chances," Peterson said. "We just didn't make the plays down the stretch and they did."
Neither did the Vols have an answer for Freije who outscored Tennessee's top two scorers combined (McFadgon 13 and Watson 12) and nearly equaled Tennessee's team output with 19 second half points. The Vols only scored 23 points in the second stanza and only seven points in the last eight minutes of the contest. Freije also matched Tennessee's total with five three-pointers and only took half the shots with nine.
UT's offense struggled against Vanderbilt's collapsing zone which held center Brandon Crump to 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting.
The Vols close out their regular season campaign at home Saturday against South Carolina. If Tennessee can win that contest it will be assured of a winning season, regardless of what happens in tournament play.
Fortunately, the Vols are undefeated on neutral courts albeit at 0-0.