For 34 minutes, it seemed like this was a game destined to go down to the wire: neither team holding a lead of more than 7, lead changes in the double digits, and both teams in foul trouble. Those 34 minutes were eventful, with double technicals, great play from great players on both sides, J.P. Prince hitting two threes and Steven Pearl hitting a reverse layup.
Even with Scotty Hopson and Kenny Hall on the bench with four fouls, the Vols held a 51-45 lead with 13 minutes to play. Tennessee couldn't expand the lead any further, and Vandy battled back, taking a 64-60 lead with under 7 to play.
From there, Vandy's best players were at their best. Jermaine Beal hit as many shots against the Vols tonight as he had in six previous apperances against Tennessee, trading an 8 for 37 career performance for an 8 for 12 night. No two shots were bigger than the back-to-back threes he hit in a 10-0 run that put Vandy up 74-60, en route to 25 points to lead all scorers.
He wasn't alone. Vandy had five players finish in double figures, shot 50.9% from the floor and 57.1% from beyond the arc, and scored more points on the Vols than any team this season. And when Vandy was at their best, Tennessee had no response from anyone other than Prince.
J.P. should be commended on his night: 22 points on 9 of 10 shooting (!), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals...and yes, 2 technical fouls. But beyond him, the Vols couldn't match Vandy's effort. Scotty Hopson's 14 points were countered by his 5 fouls, and a critical turnover when the Vols had cut the lead to 8 in the final two minutes. Wayne Chism had 16 rebounds and 5 blocks, and didn't allow A.J. Ogilvy (4 of 11) to beat the Vols...but his knee was clearly not 100%, and he shot 2 of 9 and missed four free throws.
Bobby Maze got 11 points (and 7 assists), but on 4 of 11 shooting. Skylar McBee hit one three, but missed five more. Renaldo Woolridge scored no points for the third time in four games. On a night when Vanderbilt was playing well for 40 minutes, Tennessee needed more...and didn't get it from most of the team all night, or from anyone in the last six minutes.
As a result, Vandy moves to an impressive 5-0 in the SEC. They're headed to Rupp Arena this weekend, where the question of how good the 'Dores are will continue to be answered. For my money, I think Vanderbilt is one of those teams that, if they're shooting well, could be very dangerous in March against anyone. They have the right mixture of talent on the perimeter and in the post, and they score a ton of points. Hopefully they're as good as we saw tonight, and this goes down as a tough loss to a very good team.
But regardless, Tennessee falls to 15-4, 3-2 in the conference, with two straight losses. And the good vibes of the 5-0 run the new Vols went on have gone away, replaced by a nervous energy that what we've seen against Georgia and Vanderbilt is a more realistic picture of what this team actually has left.
Our old friends from Florida come to town on Sunday, in a game Tennessee needs very badly. If Tennessee wants to stay in the Top 25 and in the SEC frontrunner conversation, the Vols need to bounce back with a win in Knoxville. And either way, the last two games have shown what I think we all still knew to be true deep down: that with this roster, everything is going to be a challenge. Is it one Tennessee can rise above? We're going to need more than we got tonight, and right now I'm not sure where it's coming from.
Hats off to Vanderbilt...but now everything becomes about Sunday afternoon, because the Florida game has become Tennessee's most important test of the season.