The Commodores – finally given the chance to play the big boys on the neighborhood block – secured an 85-76 victory over the Volunteers and won at Thompson-Boling Arena for the first time in five games. The win extends Vanderbilt's winning streak to 10 games; more importantly, it sends a very loud message about the credentials of Kevin Stallings's crew.
While Tennessee came into the game off a loss – something which, on a certain level, does not make this victory the upset it could have been – one could just as easily say that since the Vols figured to be intent on avoiding a two-game losing streak, Vandy's breakthrough could be seen in an even more favorable light. At any rate, however you choose to spin this success story, nobody in Nashville will be complaining today.
Senior guard Jermaine Beal was the hero for VU. Beal scored 25 points on a night in which he went 8 of 12 from the field, including 4 of 6 on 3-point attempts.
Even more impressive for Vandy was the fact that it pulled off the victory despite a subpar game from center A.J. Ogilvy. The Australian big man, who battled foul trouble throughout the game, struggled to get clean looks at the basket against an athletic Tennessee defense. Ogilvy was only 4 of 11 from the field and found himself contested all night by the Vols' Wayne Chism and Kenny Hall. In the first half alone, Ogilvy picked up two quick fouls and only played nine minutes, finishing the half with only three points.
Stallings, seeing the success Georgia had against Tennessee last Saturday night with a zone defense, opened the game in a 2-3 zone. The zone defense had a negligible effect early, however, as the Vols' man-to-man pressure created early Vanderbilt turnovers resulting in fast break points for UT.
Tennessee, in the same breath, was also careless with basketball and continued its habit of settling for jump shots which enabled Vandy to go on an early 8-0 run to take a seven-point lead (17-10) with 12:42 to play in the first half.
UT then began to dictate the tempo of the game. Vanderbilt started to play at Tennessee's pace and forced numerous jump shots early in the shot clock that allowed Tennessee some easy transition points, including a Scotty Hopson 3-pointer.
Tennessee was able to use its athleticism and the similarity of its players' styles (namely, a lot of active, medium-height tweeners and hybrid wing players who are interchangeable at various spots on the floor) to switch Vanderbilt screens and not allow Vandy to create any mismatches.
One of the keys for Vanderbilt going into the game was to let Bobby Maze try to be shooter instead of a driver, but midway through the first half this slipped the collective mind of the VU defense. At the midway point of the half, Maze first penetrated the middle of the Vanderbilt zone to knock down a mid-range jumper, and on the next possession, was fouled on a drive to the basket. He nailed both free throws to give Tennessee back the lead at 22-21.
The first-half star for Tennessee was J.P. Prince. In the first half, Prince had 11 points, shooting 5 for 5 from the field, including only his second made 3-point shot of the season. (Prince added two more made three's in the second half.) He finished the half with an assist to Steven Pearl, who made a twisting reverse layup to put Tennessee up 35-31 at the break.
In the second half, Tennessee maintained its lead until Ogilvy scored his first field goal of the second half with 17:00 to play, tying the game at 39.
That's when emotions came into play and a double-technical foul was called on Prince and VU's Andre Walker. Prince was fouled going to the basket, but after the whistle, he appeared to hit Walker on the right side of his face with a closed fist. Referee Doug Shows and crew examined the video replay but decided nothing further in the way of punishment was warranted for Prince.
This was fortuitous for Bruce Pearl's squad: Prince nailed his second three on the next possession and then followed that up with a transition dunk, earning himself his second technical foul when he hung on the rim. (Prince was not ejected for that technical, however.)
Already up three, UT witnessed guard Skylar McBee hit a transition 3-pointer and later earn a steal-and-layup combo after a Vandy timeout.
The success of Tennessee shooting the ball early paid off for Vanderbilt as the second half wore on. Initial 3-point fulfillment for the Children of the Checkerboard turned into a large piece of fool's gold that the Black and Gold would take advantage of.
Pearl found his team settling for jump shots instead of attacking the rim like it did in the first half. Vanderbilt recognized this and punished Tennessee for its poor shot selection. The Dores took their first lead of the half (56-55), one they would never relinquish, on an Ogilvy putback with 9:27 to play.
Both teams traded a couple of baskets and then it was time for Beal to leave his footprint on the game. With Vandy up 66-60, Beal hit a two-point jump shot. After Maze quickly missed a jumper at the other end, Beal knocked down a three, forcing a UT timeout with the Commodores up 11 at 71-60.
That timeout by Pearl did nothing to help a reeling Volunteer roster.
UT's Renaldo Woolridge turned the ball over out of the timeout and Beal made him pay with another 3-pointer in transition, going on a personal 8-0 run. This put the Dore's up 74-60 with 5:00 left.
Stallings's club then reestablished its inside game while Tennessee tried to shoot its way back into contention. The Commodores went to Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor inside and went 5 of 6 from the foul line to close out the Vols.
Further complicating UT's shooting woes – and aiding Vandy's cause in the process – was the foul trouble which befell Kenny Hall and offensive leader Scotty Hopson, caused by VU's second half commitment to an inside-out game. Both picked up their fourth personal fouls with just under 18 minutes left in the game. While Hopson finished with a reasonable-looking 14 points, only five came in the second half.
Past Tennessee success against Vanderbilt has also been a product of Wayne Chism's play. Yet, at one point tonight, Chism was 0 of 5 from the field. He finished the game with a meager eight points, going only 2 of 9 from the field, including three ill-advised 3-point shots. While he was a defensive factor when guarding Ogilvy and grabbed 16 rebounds on Wednesday evening, he was hardly a factor in the paint on offense.
Now the Commodores will travel to Lexington, Ky., to face a No. 1 Kentucky team fresh off its loss at South Carolina. The winner of Saturday's game will be in first place in the SEC East.
For one day, though, Vandy Nation needs to be able to savor a vanquishing of the Vols. Even though UT did lose at Georgia, Bruce Pearl still runs a formidable national program and has fielded a club that was good enough to slay the Kansas Jayhawks with only six scholarship players on the active roster.
People wondered if Vandy was more than just a team good enough to dispatch SEC West tomato cans or lower-tier SEC East foes.
For one night at least, that question has been answered in the affirmative. Yes, doubters, Vandy's transcended a lot of assessments and expectations with one very cathartic and convincing conquest in Knoxville.
Down goes UT, 85-76
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