Vol coach Bruce Pearl warned all week that the Commodores, despite a 3-3 SEC record, are a dangerous team. They play an unorthodox offensive system. They're more athletic than usual, particularly in the frontcourt. They are well coached and they are disciplined. These traits enabled them to post road wins at Georgetown and at Kentucky. For 37 minutes it appeared they would post one at Knoxville, as well.
"This is a really good basketball team we beat tonight," Pearl said mere seconds into his post-game remarks. "That's the biggest win we've had so far this season for lots of reasons."
Pearl praised the coaching abilities of Vandy's Kevin Stallings, noting that the Vols were "extremely challenged in the first half. We were fortunate to be down only six points (33-27) because we were terrifically outplayed."
With Lofton and Watson misfiring from the perimeter, Tennessee shot just 30 percent in the first half, including 10 percent from 3-point range. Despite the lack of success on outside shots Pearl dryly noted that "It didn't stop us from shooting them, though. We had very few turn-downs, and that was part of the problem with our shooting."
Pearl's halftime lecture convinced the Vols to turn down some outside shots and begin attacking the basket more. This got Vandy's inside players in foul trouble and got the Vols to the free-throw line 32 times. By comparison, the ‘Dores shot just five free throws. UT sank 21 more foul shots, and that was the difference in the game.
Another impressive aspect of Wednesday's win was that Tennessee (15-3 overall, 6-1 SEC) had to play Vandy's game but still prevailed. The Vols never established the frantic pace they prefer but they adapted to the Dores' pace well enough to win anyway.
"The key is to be able to win games (when scoring) in the 60s," Pearl said, adding that he told his team: "I know we can win this thing if it's in the 80s but we've got to be able to win if it's in the 60s."
Ultimately, Tennessee's composure was severely tested … but it passed.
"It was about patience," Pearl said. "The first half Vanderbilt was patient. The second half we were patient."