Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee led almost the whole way but Vanderbilt still made it very interesting down the stretch.
Vanderbilt led this game for one possession. That came at 23-22, after the Vols started the game on a 12-0 run. Tennessee responded to build a 27-23 halftime lead, then went up 50-39 in the second half. But Vanderbilt, to their credit, refused to fold. They tied the game at 52-52, and when Tennessee pushed back in front 57-52 they still fought back to the very end. For a very young and clearly rebuilding team that's had it handed to them multiple times already this season, I'm sure you could consider tonight a sign of growth; we'll have to beat this team again in Nashville and I'm not sure anyone should expect it to be easy after tonight.
"Easy" is one word you could use to describe the final look Vanderbilt got in this game. You could also use "terrifying", "frustrating", or "heart-attack inducing", which is three words but probably comes closest to describing what it felt like inside my own chest and thousands of others inside Thompson-Boling Arena. When you lead for every possession but one and lead by multiple possessions for almost all of the second half against a team that's used to losing on the road, you take things for granted. I don't think any of us felt truly nervous until Jordan McRae missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with the Vols leading 58-57 with 27 seconds to go. This came after the Vols allowed an offensive rebound on a missed Vanderbilt free throw, which came after Jarnell Stokes and Skylar McBee both missed a free throw. That part was a familiar end-of-game script for the Vols, who have seen crucial missed free throws bury them at Kentucky and at Ole Miss.
But what is also becoming familiar is getting a game-winning defensive stop. Three days after stopping Alabama after a missed free throw to preserve a one point win, the Vols survived Vanderbilt's final possession and the two offensive rebounds that followed, barely. But since there is no such thing as a bad win in college basketball, barely was beautiful tonight.
Credit Brandon Lopez, pressed into duty due to what Cuonzo Martin called a hamstring strain in the postgame which sidelined Trae Golden for all but 11 minutes. Lopez defended Kedren Johnson (14 points tonight) without fouling, forcing him to put up an off-balance shot that went long. Madness followed with a pair of putback opportunities, the second of which may or may not have counted at the buzzer, but both missed by inches. As was the case all game, Tennessee stayed juuuuuuuuust out of reach.
A lot of that has to do with Jarnell Stokes, a monster now in consecutive games. Tonight it was 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 big assists. He passed it really well and worked through the double team better than I've seen him all season; Stokes was 8 of 12 from the field and Vanderbilt simply had no answer for him when he got the ball. Vanderbilt may not be the best in the world at post defense and lacked the pure size Stokes has gone against vs Ole Miss and Alabama, but either way it's an incredibly good sign.
It's especially good with Trae Golden now sidelined for who knows how long. Lopez didn't score but was effective running motion and defended well enough to stay on the floor. Tennessee also won without a huge number from Jordan McRae, who cooled off to 2 of 10 from the floor. Filling in the box score tonight? A welcome return from McB43, times three. Lopez and McRae were both instrumental in getting him outstanding looks from the corner.
Tennessee has cut back on turnovers, seen a revival from Jarnell Stokes, and continued to defend really well for the most part, though it sounded like Cuonzo was upset with some breakdowns that allowed the second Vanderbilt run. But sub-par free throw shooting (68% tonight, just above the season average) continues to hurt a team that relies on it so much for its point total.
Maybe we're just destined to play close games; we've seen the Vols battle back from 21 against Memphis and give up a 14 point lead tonight. And depending on how long Golden is out, we'll have to see some adjustment with Lopez, though Golden has struggled all season anyway.
In the grand scheme of March, tonight was simply a game the Vols couldn't afford to lose; Tennessee's RPI didn't move at all with tonight's home win over what is now an 8-11 Commodore squad. The Vols hold steady at 78, helped by Virginia's win over NC State but harmed by Wichita State falling to Larry Bird University. Tennessee is in the part of its schedule where bullets simply have to be dodged; there's not much hay to be made in beating Georgia, South Carolina, or Vanderbilt, all of whom the Vols will face in the first two weeks of February.
However, the next one will be worth something: at Arkansas on Saturday, where the Hogs are 12-7 with an RPI of 96. Road wins - of which the Vols currently have zero - are huge, especially against above average teams. This one, as well as a date at Texas A&M on February 23, are sneaky important to this team's bubble hopes. Both Arkansas and A&M are teams you probably feel like Tennessee is slightly better than (though without Golden I'm not sure), but will be road tests against teams with similar outside bubble hopes. It's the sort of game Tennessee lost at Alabama but won at LSU late last season. If the Vols want their biggest chances to matter later - Kentucky (February 16), Florida (February 26), Missouri (March 9) - they have to win games like tonight against teams they are clearly better than, and they have to be able to win tough but winnable road games like the next one. Saturday is very, very important to RPI and tournament hopes, and thus very important to what the narrative of the rest of the season is going to be.
There's cause for concern tonight with UT blowing two big leads and Golden going down, but greater cause for celebration because Tennessee again got the stop it had to have to win the game, and wins are the bottom line. That's two straight now, moving Tennessee to 11-8 (3-4). This one was good. Now we need to get the next one.
Keep grinding. Go Vols.