KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- Jon Higgins' 3-pointer broke open 59-59 tie game with 2:28 to play, and the Tennessee Volunteers held on down the stretch for a 71-66 win over Vanderbilt Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Commodores got 18 points each from Matt Freije and Corey Smith, but were plagued for the second straight outing by turnovers, poor guard play and poor rebounding.
With the loss Vanderbilt fell to 8-7 overall, 1-3 in the SEC. The Volunteers (9-4, 2-2) gained their 100th victory in the 81-year-old series between the two teams.
"We've gone from being a pretty good defensive team to not a very good defensive team," said a disappointed head coach Kevin Stallings. "[Tennessee] got open shots all night long. They shot over 50% both halves.
"We're not great scoring team to begin with, but the last few games our defense haven't given us anything."
Stallings was also critical of his team's guard play. The Vols held Vandy's starting guards scoreless and forced Vandy into 15 turnovers. Meanwhile Tennessee's starting guards, Jon Higgins and C. J. Watson, combined for 23 points, while senior reserve guard Thaydeus Holden, averaging only 4.8 points per game, exploded for 17 points on 5-of-5 from 3-point territory.
"Mario Moore [8 points] is the only guard who can take and make the shots," said Stallings. "We're just not guarding well." Tennessee, which was led in scoring by Holden's 17, shot 53.3% from the floor as opposed to Vanderbilt's 47.3%. The Vols also held big advantages in free-throw attempts (22 to 8) and rebounding (31 to 23).
Corey Smith, left alone outside by the Tennessee zone defense, got Vandy off to a good early start by knocking down two early outside shots. But the game took a disturbing turn when Matt Freije picked up his second foul five minutes into the game, and Julian Terrell (Freije's sub at power forward) picked up his second foul five minutes later. Freije was held scoreless in the first half.
"We knew Corey was going to play well, because he's practiced well," said Stallings. "He was on an uptick after the Kentucky game, and he played well tonight."
The Commodore defense forced the Vols into 15 turnovers in the first half, but 40% shooting from the floor and a flurry of scoring by Holden allowed Tennessee to carry a 30-25 lead to the locker room at halftime. Smith was Vandy's leading scorer at halftime, with 10 points on 4-of-4 from the field.
Vandy came out strong early in the second half and tied the game at 33-33 on a nicely executed alley-oop pass to Matt Freije. Holden hit two straight 3-pointers to give Tennessee a six-point lead at 43-37, but Smith answered with two more treys for Vandy. Freije began to warm up on Vandy's offensive end, and the Commodores also began to find Thornton underneath. Thornton's nifty move to the basket out of a double-team tied the game at 57-57, and Freije hit two free throws to tie things again at 59-59.
Higgins' timely trey, however, gave Tennessee a three-point lead at 62-59, and a Russell Lakey 3-point attempt missed. The Vols took a 65-59 lead on a stuff by Brandon Crump, but the refs nailed Holden with a technical foul for taunting immediately afterwards. After Corey Smith made two free throws for Vandy and Crump hit another for Tennessee, the Vols led 66-61.
Vanderbilt, desperately needing a basket in the game's final 0:50, came up empty on successive trips down court, as Freije missed a 3-point attempt on one, and Brandon Crump stole the ball the next time down to effectively put the game out of reach.
"I'm pleased with the victory," said second-year Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson. "We played hard tonight, but not very smart. We made some plays down the stretch. The big difference for us was that while we had 15 turnovers in the first half, we cut it to five in the second half."
Corey Smith's 18 points were one short of his season high vs. High Point, and Brian Thornton added 16 points for the Commodores. Freije's 18 points, all in the second half, allowed him to become the 35th player in Vanderbilt history to score over 1,000 in a career; he now has 1,011.
Things get no easier for Vanderbilt anytime soon, as the Commodores travel to Gainesville, Fla. Wednesday night to take on No. 6 Florida (15-2, 4-0). The Gators defeated South Carolina Saturday evening, 77-75, to move temporary sole posession of the SEC East lead.
Tennessee's Thadeus Holden (10) drives against Vanderbilt's Russel Lakey (11), Saturday, Jan. 18, 2003, in Knoxville, Tenn. Holden scored 17 points to lead Tennessee past Vanderbilt 71-66. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)