Reason No. 1: Major Wingate. Exploding from a three-game slump, the 6-foot-10 junior hit 5 of 6 shots and scored 16 points to spark a 69-62 Vol triumph. Vandy couldn't stop him; Julian Terrell and Derrick Byars fouled out trying. The only Commodore with the heft to hang with Wingate, 6-11 250-pound Ted Skuchas, picked up three fouls in eight minutes.
Reason No. 2: Stamina. Tennessee managed to increase the tempo in the second half, and Vanderbilt wilted down the stretch. The game was tied at 58 with 3:20 remaining but the Commodores were out of gas. The Vols had one gallon left, and that proved to be enough. They outscored the ‘Dores 11-4 the rest of the way.
Reason No. 3: Long-range marksmanship. Vanderbilt nailed a school-record 18 shots from 3-point range last season in Knoxville. The Commodores were just 4 of 20 Wednesday night, including 1 of 13 in the second half.
What was the difference?
"I think it was the press and them trying to play so many minutes in an up-tempo game," Watson said. "I think the press got ‘em exhausted where they couldn't make open 3-pointers or free throws at the end."
Despite shooting poorly from the field, Watson had a big night – 11 points, 5 assists and zero turnovers in 36 minutes at the point. Dane Bradshaw recorded a double-double (10 points, 12 rebounds). JaJuan Smith chipped in 10 points, including a huge 3-pointer that widened the gap to 64-58 with 1:08 left. Andre Patterson added 8 points and 11 rebounds, barely missing his fourth double-double in succession.
DeMarre Carroll scored 16 points, Byars and Terrell 12 each for the Commodores.
The win improves Tennessee's record to 15-3 overall and 6-1 in SEC play. The loss drops Vandy to 12-6, 3-4. The game was huge because of its NCAA Tournament implications … and because of personal implications.
With Mears battling some health problems, Pearl phoned him on Monday to ask about wearing the bright orange blazer (a Mears trademark) during the Vanderbilt and Kentucky games "in your honor."
Mears, who always relished the fact his two most heated rivals despised the gaudy blazer, was happy to give his consent. That made Wednesday's game even more meaningful.
"I'm pleased we won," Pearl said, "because I had this jacket on for Coach Mears."