Free-throw shooting, a recurring problem this season, cost the Vols dearly. Tennessee made a mere 4 of 9 foul shots over the game's final 7:07 and finished 22 of 32 from the line.
Although Tennessee had just 72 hours between its emotionally draining 66-62 upset of previously unbeaten Memphis on Saturday night and the Vandy game, Bruce Pearl refused to use the quick turnaround as an excuse.
"I just think we got outplayed," the Vols' head coach said on his post-game show. "Was it difficult? Yeah. Are we tired? Sure.... But it wasn't the difference in this basketball game."
By beating the Vols, the Commodores (24-4 overall, 9-4 SEC) enhanced their reputation as home-floor giant killers. They now stand 6-3 all-time vs. top-ranked teams at Memorial Gym and have won their last four home meetings with No. 1 teams. Vandy is 18-0 at Memorial this season after notching its seventh win in a row.
The Vols (25-3, 11-2) were playing the first game in program history as the NCAA's top-ranked team. In addition to seeing a nine-game winning streak snapped, they saw their lead in the SEC championship race cut in half. Kentucky and Mississippi State (both 9-3) can pull within a game of UT with Wednesday night victories.
Vandy's Shan Foster led all scorers with 32 points Tuesday night. The 6-6 senior hit 9 of 13 field-goal tries, including 6 of 9 from beyond the arc. Jermaine Beal chipped in 17 points and Alex Gordon 11 as the Commodores avenged an 80-60 loss to UT in Knoxville on Jan. 17.
Lofton scored 25 points to pace Tennessee, passing the 2,000-point milestone in the process. Tyler Smith added 11 points and a career-high 17 rebounds. Foul-plagued Wayne Chism, who had 18 points and 18 rebounds in the earlier meeting at Knoxville, finished with just 4 points and 4 rebounds in the rematch.
"We play best when everybody contributes," Pearl said. "With the exception of a couple of guys, we really had a lot of guys that just did not produce in the minutes they played."
As happened Saturday night at Memphis, Tennessee incurred a quick deficit by allowing its opponent to drain a rash of 3-pointers. Beal hit one trey, then Foster added three more, as Vandy raced to a 23-9 lead with 10:46 left in the half.
Tennessee closed to 31-28 by halftime, and led 41-38 with 17 minutes remaining. The Vols' halfcourt offense could generate just one basket over the next 11 minutes, however, and Vandy outscored UT 23-12 during this stretch to build a 61-53 lead.
Tennessee closed to three twice – 70-67 on a driving three-point play by Ramar Smith and 72-69 on a Chism dunk with 7.5 seconds left – but could get no closer.
"It was a struggle all night long," Pearl said of Tennessee's offense. "Gosh, the best offense we ran was the very first play of the game. It was downhill from there."
Tennessee won the backboards 45-38 and limited Vandy to 38.8 percent shooting (19 of 49) from the field. Ultimately, the Vols just didn't force enough turnovers and make enough shots to win.
"No easy baskets," Pearl said. "We got no offense from our defense. They (Commodores) were patient. They only shot 49 times. And we bailed 'em out way too much at the foul line.... They shot 24 free throws in the second half.
"You can't win like that."
Sure enough, Tennessee didn't.