"Vanderbilt's a good team. They've got juniors and seniors ... and they took advantage of our youth," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game radio show, adding that his freshman-dominated team "showed tremendous heart and character in making a great comeback."
The scrappy Vols, 5-0 in games decided by single digits prior to Wednesday night, simply couldn't make the clutch stop this time.
"I'm glad people expect us to win those games," Pearl said. "I want people to expect us to win those games. WE expected to win that game. To come in here and put yourself in position to have the game won is a very positive sign but certainly very disappointing in the outcome."
Another note of irony: Byars, who led the Commodores with 25 points (20 in the second half), easily could've been playing for the Vols Wednesday night. Two years ago he wanted to transfer from Virginia to Tennessee. When the Vols showed little interest, he transferred to Vandy instead.
Dan Cage chipped in 15 points and Foster 14 for the Commodores, now 11-5 overall and 1-1 in SEC play.
Chris Lofton hit 11 of 15 shots (6 of 7 from 3-point range) and scored 29 points to pace Tennessee, now 13-3 and 1-1. Ramar Smith contributed 17 points and committed just one turnover in 29 minutes at the point. Fellow freshman Crews added 10 points and 6 rebounds. Dane Bradshaw chipped in 8 assists.
Pearl called Wednesday "a step-up game" for Smith, adding: "It was unbelievable the way he played."
Tennessee shot 48.5 percent from the floor but made just 40 percent (6 of 15) from the foul line. The Vols lost the backboard battle 40-33 and allowed the Commodores to pull down 13 offensive rebounds – 12 coming in the second half.
"We just didn't man up," Pearl said. "We just weren't physical enough."
The game was a seesaw battle for 40 minutes. Lofton scored on a 3 and a pair of nifty drives as Tennessee raced to a 16-7 lead but Vandy made a 15-5 run to go up 22-21. Lofton drained a 33-footer at the buzzer to give him 16 points and give the Vols a 40-37 halftime lead.
Interestingly enough, the Commodores committed nine first-half turnovers – all nine coming in the first 10 minutes.
The spurts continued after intermission. Vandy opened the half with a 7-0 run to go up 44-40 and eventually widened the gap to 11 points (59-48) with around 12 minutes remaining.
Lofton, who didn't score in the first 8 minutes of the second half, hit a 3-pointer with 11:30 remaining to ignite a 10-2 Tennessee run that narrowed the gap to 61-58.
Vanderbilt maintained a three- to six-point lead over the next few minutes. JaJuan Smith, who made just 2 of 11 shots for the Vols, drained a 3-pointer that capped a 9-0 spurt and gave Tennessee a 76-73 lead with just over 2 minutes left.
Byars tied the score with a 3 but Ramar Smith answered with a 3 to put Tennessee on top 79-76 with 1:30 to go. Ross Neltner scored inside for Vandy, then Byars hit an 18-footer to put the Commodores on top 80-79 with 14 seconds remaining.