"Just when you thought this team was done doing something you never expect them to do, they rise up and do it again," UT coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "I'm sure it was hard for fans to figure out how in the world Tennessee won this basketball game. I still don't have it figured out, except I can refer to the character of this team and its will to win."
Basically, Tennessee won because it finished with a flourish. After scoring a season-low 21 first-half points and trailing by 10 at the break, the Vols found an energy reserve that had been missing in recent games. The second half saw them force 12 turnovers, limit Vandy to 26-percent shooting and win the backboards 21-16.
Chris Lofton erupted for 17 second-half points to finish with 21. C.J. Watson added 11, Andre Patterson and Major Wingate 10 each as Tennessee closed regular-season play 21-6 overall and 12-4 in SEC action. Lofton, who had made 36 consecutive free throws this season, saw his streak end midway through the second half. It was UT's only miss from the foul line in a 15-of-16 effort.
Vanderbilt led by a point with three minutes to go but Patterson converted a midcourt steal into a driving dunk that gave Tennessee the lead for good and ignited a 14-2 explosion, turning a 54-55 deficit into a 68-57 lead with 33 seconds left.
The big shots in the spurt were 3-pointers by Dane Bradshaw and Chris Lofton that put Tennessee on top 62-57. Watson (4 of 4) and Lofton (2 of 2) combined to hit 6 of 6 free throws in the final minute to keep Vandy at bay.
Tennessee played an awful first half, shooting just 28 percent from the floor, hitting just 1 of 11 from 3-point range and committing 9 turnovers. The Vols turned things around in the final 20 minutes, however.
"I can't say enough about these kids and the job they've done," Pearl said. "It's a great sign of a great team when you can win when you don't play your best basketball."
Pearl showed up for Saturday's game wearing the type of orange blazer made famous by predecessor Ray Mears. And, appropriately enough, he got the same response from Vandy's fans that Mears used to get.
"They booed me when I came out to start the game," Pearl said. "I bet they REALLY boo me next year. That's great! Coach Mears has got to be so proud that we won and that they hate me already. That's wonderful!"
As champion of the SEC East, Tennessee gets a first-round bye and will not have to play in Thursday's opening round of the league tournament at Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center. Instead, the Vols will play Friday at 1 (EST) against an opponent to be determined the previous evening.