But it wasn't to be-- a miserable shooting night by Vandy and a flurry of fouls early in the second half led to a 76-66 win for Tennessee before 13,823 at Thompson-Boling Arena. The No. 23 Commodores fell to their second straight loss after opening the season with 12 wins. Scooter McFadgon and Brandon Crump paced the Big Orange with 20 points each.
The Commodores, which for the third consecutive game battled through a mystifying shooting slump, rallied to cut a 13-point deficit to three points at 65-62 with 2:52 to play. But a pair of timely Tennessee treys would prove to be Vandy's undoing.
Seconds later, freshman Jemere Hendrix's 3-point bomb from downtown gave UT a 9-point lead with 1:35 left. It was a dagger that not only stifled Vanderbilt's comeback-- it may have left the Commodores questioning whether their 12-game win streak earlier in the season was a mirage.
"We got a little bit careless toward the end, relaxed a little too much, and let them get back in the game," said victorious Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson. "The 3-point shots by McFadgon and Hendrix were awful big. For Jereme Hendrix to hit a 3-pointer like that was nothing short of terrific."
Vandy's 36% percentage from the floor, including an abysmal 4-of-21 from 3-point range, was its worst shooting performance since the Indiana game. Four Commodores scored in double figures (Scott Hundley and Mario Moore with 11 each, Julian Terrell and David Przybyszewski with 10 each), but no one player shot the ball well. The starters were a combined 15-of-42.
"Maybe we need better execution on offense," lamented Kevin Stallings in the postgame. "We didn't have one guy who shot it well. When you don't shoot the ball well from the perimeter, it's hard to get balance in the offense."
For the third game in a row, and despite an emphasis on rebounding in practices for the last few days, Vandy was badly out-rebounded, 44-30. Vol point guard C. J. Watson ended up with 13 rebounds-- more than Vanderbilt's entire starting five-- to go with his 11 points.
To make matters worse, the Commodores put Tennessee in the double-bonus with 13:19 left in the second half, leading to 30 free-throw attempts for the Vols; they connected on 23.
"We fouled way too much. They got in the bonus way too early," Stallings said. "You can't foul like that and expect to win. You have to play defense with discipline. On some of the fouls, we lacked awareness and discipline."
Those factors, combined with Vandy's ice-cold shooting, allowed Tennessee to open up a 54-41 lead midway through the second half. But Vanderbilt, shifting into a zone defense for much of the game's final ten minutes, gamely chipped away at the lead and rallied into striking distance at 65-62, before the Vols pulled away.
"When we went to the zone defense, it helped us," Stallings said. "We probably should have done it earlier, but we didn't."
Vanderbilt seemed to be cruising along in the first half when it took an 18-15 lead on David Przybyszewski's 3-pointer from the wing. But at that point the Commodores went inexplicably cold, hitting just one more field goal the rest of the half and allowing UT to build a 31-26 halftime lead.
For the third straight game, senior scoring leader Matt Freije struggled from the field and ended with just eight points on a 2-of-12 shooting night. Freije, who averaged 21 points per game over the season's first 11 games, has now been held to a 12-point average the last three.
"I've been concerned about Matt Freije's offense," added Stallings. "I need to be helping him more than I am now. We're doing what we've been doing trying to get him in his spots. He's just pressing, just struggling. Whether it is a slump or whatever, I need to be helping him more.
"We have to feed off Matt Freije's play. When he makes shots, the other people have the confidence they can make shots. But when he struggles, we're all struggling. When he does struggle, other people have to step up and play better.
"We just struggled to shoot the ball tonight-- that was the biggest problem all around. We've got to do a little better on that the next two days. We need to go back and practice the next two days and maybe make a few more shots on Saturday."
With the win on its home court, Tennessee improved to 10-2, 2-1.
"We all know you have to take care of your home court," Peterson said. "I'm happy for our guys that they were able to bounce back from last Saturday and beat a very good Vanderbilt team."
The Commodores (12-2, 1-2) return home Saturday at 7 p.m. to face Florida, a team which had no midweek game scheduled this week. The Gators' most recent game was a 38-point whipping of Tennessee last Saturday.
Buzz Peterson's record vs. Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt improved to 4-1. Tennessee leads the all-time series, 102-62.
Vanderbilt has now lost 11 straight regular-season SEC road games. The Dores' last regular-season SEC road win came Feb. 23, 2002, a 67-62 victory over Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Photos courtesy of University of Tennessee athletics.