Short stay at the top

For Tennessee, it was fun while it lasted. It just didn't last very long.

Tennessee's reign as the No. 1 team in the nation will be over Monday, when the new polls come out – unless Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA get beat.

Led by Shan Foster's 32 points, Vanderbilt eked out a 72-69 victory Tuesday night, the fourth consecutive win for the Commodores at home over a top-ranked team. It's been 30 years since No. 1 won at Memorial Gym.

Tennessee was undone by poor shooting. The Vols hit just 32 percent for the game, 23 percent in the first half. They went more than 11 minutes with just one field goal in the second half as Vandy built an eight-point lead and hung on down the stretch.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was frustrated by the lack of scoring.

``It was a struggle all night long,'' Pearl said. ``We had an impossible time trying to score 2-point baskets, an impossible time.

``Offensively, we've been struggling a little bit. We've been grinding games out and haven't put up big numbers in a while. … We're not cutting hard, screening hard, spacing hard. We're not executing. When you don't screen, you don't get open.''

It was evident UT wasn't as sharp as it had been three days earlier in defeating then-No. 1 Memphis on the road. Vanderbilt jumped out to a 23-9 lead. But it was 31-28 at halftime, and the Vols led by three four minutes into the second half.

That's when Tennessee went frigid from the field in a tightly called game that left both teams in foul trouble.

The outcome was in stark contrast to UT's 20-point win over Vandy in Knoxville last month. The two main reasons: Foster and Wayne Chism.

Foster had been ineffective against the Vols in the last three games. He was 1-of-11 from 3-point range last month and 2-of-22 from beyond the arc in the last three outings against Tennessee.

But at Memorial Gym, where he's hit 54 percent from long range this season, Foster got hot. He hit four of his first five treys and knocked down 6-of-9 outside. His 32 points – tied for his season high -- more than doubled his 14 in Knoxville on Jan. 17. He was 9-of-13 from the field, 8-of-11 at the foul line.

On the flip side, Chism had a career game earlier against Vanderbilt with 18 points and 18 rebounds. How did he fare the second time around? He got four points and four rebounds.

The concern about UT's ability to bounce back from the huge win at Memphis proved accurate.

``It was a real quick turnaround for us,'' said senior guard Chris Lofton. ``We really were tired but we can't make any excuses. Vanderbilt came out and played hard and they deserved to win. I give them all the credit.''

If not for Lofton, UT might have suffered a blowout. Lofton scored 25 points and made six of UT's seven 3-pointers. But he didn't have a great shooting night, making 7-of-18 from the field and 6-of-15 from long range. The rest of the team was 1-of-11 from beyond the arc.

Tennessee (25-3) was unable to get easy transition baskets off its press, didn't finish near the basket and didn't shoot well from outside. That's a recipe for defeat.

``We didn't get good point guard play, and you really need good point guard play here,'' Pearl said, alluding to the unique baseline benches at Vandy's home gym.

Ramar Smith was 3-of-9 from the field and Jordan Howell continues to slump. If UT's point guard play doesn't improve, the Vols might have trouble advancing in the postseason because tournament play is a lot about point-guard play.

That wasn't Pearl's only concern. He didn't like the defense on Foster, the way his team bailed Vandy out with second-half fouls and the eight forced turnovers after getting 22 in Knoxville.

As Lofton said: ``When we're not turning teams over, we're not a good basketball team.''

Pearl didn't like the fact that Foster had nine 3-point attempts.

``Shan Foster is a guy you've got to make dribble the ball,'' Pearl said. ``We should never be in position to let a guy like that get nine 3-point (attempts). You've got to cover him before the catch and make him put the ball on the floor.''

Pearl didn't want to use fatigue from the Memphis game as an excuse.

``I just think we got outplayed,'' Pearl said. ``Was it difficult? Yes. Are we tired? Sure. … But it wasn't the difference in the basketball game. We play best when everybody contributes and we had a lot of guys that didn't produce when they played.''

Suddenly, Tennessee's march to its first outright SEC regular-season title since 1967 is in jeopardy. The Vols (11-2 SEC) are one game up on Kentucky and Mississippi State in the loss column and two ahead of Vanderbilt.

Kentucky has Ole Miss, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida left on the schedule while State plays Auburn, Florida, Vanderbilt and LSU.

Tennessee is still in the driver's seat. But Vanderbilt exposed a few areas of concern for the Vols.

Tennessee won't hold on to its No. 1 ranking.

They'll find out Sunday against Kentucky if they can hold on to the SEC lead.


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