With everything we've been through this year, a win of any kind just feels like a relief.
But this isn't just a relief. This was a huge, quality win for a Tennessee team that had gone far too long without one. We toyed with the idea at Florida, but tonight Tennessee finished the job.
And boy, did we ever.
Down 42-31 with 13:07 to play, the Vols used a pair of timeouts and easy baskets to get it back down to seven. The two teams then traded points to the nine minute mark, with Vanderbilt leading 48-41. From there, it was all Vols.
It started with Melvin Goins, who tonight was the much needed player-to-be-named-later in the Vols' keys to success: our point guard had zero assists, but scored 15 points and had 3 steals. His and-one began a rally that saw the Vols pull even at 5:28 on a Scotty Hopson score. When Jeffrey Taylor scored to put the Dores back up 51-49 the next trip down, the Vols went right back to Hopson.
Neither team made a shot in the final five minutes. Tennessee didn't hit a three in the second half.
But Hopson's continued maturation was on display tonight, and in the last five minutes he proved it by knowing exactly who to attack. First he fouled out Festus Ezeli, hitting the free throws to tie the game at 51. Then he picked up fouls four and five on Steve Tchiengang on the next two trips, hitting all of those free throws as well. Suddenly the Vols were up four with a minute to play.
And in this one, it's fitting that free throws made the biggest difference in the end.
Both sides did and will complain about the officiating heavily, depending on which part of the game you're referring to. But here's something we can all agree on: if you only call 9 fouls in the first half, don't call 26 fouls in the second half. Don't mess with the strike zone, just call it like you see it THE SAME WAY THE WHOLE GAME. Thanks.
At one point, Vandy was 14 of 17 at the free throw line, while the Vols were 3 of 9. And this was en route to becoming just another painful example of why this Tennessee team can get close, but can't get it done.
But down the stretch with Hopson on the attack, Vandy had no defense other than putting him at the stripe. And between Hopson and Tobias Harris, a Tennessee team shooting just 33% at the stripe turned around and hit nine straight free throws.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt spent the last five minutes either turning it over (twice), missing a three (0 for 4), or missing free throws: while the Vols were getting it done at the line,
Jeffrey Taylor Lance Goulbourne missed two with a minute to play and a chance to cut the lead to a deuce.
And to complete unbelief on both sides, Vandy got no points and Tennessee put the game away at the line. Down the stretch, the Vols got the job done, Vandy didn't...and Tennessee takes the broom to Vanderbilt.
As is the case with our best basketball, everybody contributed. In his postgame show, Pearl made a point about how even though our two best players are a junior and a freshmen, a team should reflect its seniors, and these Vol seniors are about defense and rebounding:
- Steven Pearl. Yep, we're starting with him: ties his career high with 6 points, plus 5 rebounds and 3 steals in 13 minutes. He makes everybody around him better.
- Josh Bone, who scored no points but saw the crunch time minutes for Cameron Tatum. (2 points, 1 for 7 shooting - we need to feed him about a million times on Saturday and let him get his confidence back) Bone grabbed five rebounds and helped lock down Jeffrey Taylor, who finished 4 of 13 for 9 points.
- We already mentioned Melvin, who had a hand in defending both Brad Tinsley (0 for 5) and the best player in the league, John Jenkins. Hopson, Melvin, and a swarming Vol defense gave Jenkins the Chris Lofton treatment, and he finished with an SEC low 11 points.
- Brian Williams got in foul trouble, but that gave Jeronne Maymon a chance to get back in the mix. It will be very interesting to watch Maymon's playing time from here - that kid will get in there and bang, for better or for worse.
We said earlier today that the Vols needed to win two of three in the bench, the centers, and the three best offensive players. Despite getting only two points from Cameron, the Scotty/Tobias/Cameron trio outscored Jenkins/Taylor/Tinsley 31-28. Williams and Ezeli were both hampered with fouls, though credit Ezeli with a strong game while he was in there with 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 blocks.
But it was the other guys: Goins, Bone, Pearl, etc. - who outplayed Vandy's other guys. Hopson got it done at the end, but it was a total team effort defensively to get us there, holding Vandy below 40% shooting and forcing 16 turnovers; that's 35 turnovers for the Dores in two games against us.
So now we move back to the greener pastures of "do what you're supposed to do and you're in" at 17-11, 7-6 in the SEC. Mississippi State comes to Knoxville on Saturday, then the Vols go to Columbia next Thursday. Win those two like we should, we're dancing and Kentucky's just the icing on the cake. We'll talk about all of this more on our bracketology podcast Wednesday night.
But this tonight? We weren't supposed to do this, and we did. Vanderbilt is a good basketball team with one home loss on their resume.
Now they have two. And the Vols proved that the good basketball that beats good teams on the road is still an option for this team every single night.
It's great...to be...