Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee played its best game of the season in Nashville, getting ahead and staying ahead of the Commodores in a much-needed and very enjoyable victory.
Tonight was good for the record and good for the soul, and both were important for this basketball team. The Vols got their first road win of the season at South Carolina on Sunday, and while Vanderbilt wasn't much better on paper than the Gamecocks, the close call in our first meeting and the nature of this rivalry made tonight worth so much more. And Tennessee cashed in from the very beginning: the Vols raced to 40 points in the first half, the most they've scored in any half in SEC play. They got there by shooting close to 60% for most of the half, paced by some big threes from Jordan McRae and Trae Golden. Golden was very strong in his return to the starting lineup, going for 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. When he's playing well, we're playing well.
Also playing way more than well right now: Jarnell Stokes, who picked up his sixth straight double double with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocks for good measure. He got 14 of those 17 in the first half, hitting 6 of 7 shots and looking completely unstoppable. When the pace of the game slowed in the second half, Stokes shifted to an eraser role, routinely denying Vanderbilt at the rim and preventing any kind of comeback. The Vols led by 12 at halftime, pushed it to as much as 16 and never let Vandy closer than 10 in the second half.
Six games in a row of this from Jarnell is no fluke. The big guy has finally adjusted to life without Jeronne Maymon, handles double teams much, much better than was the case a month ago, and has recommitted himself on the offensive glass. Stokes himself would suggest some of his early problems were effort related, but that certainly hasn't been the case the last three weeks.
This was Tennessee's best game of the season, with its three best players all turning in good efforts. The Vols held Vanderbilt to 46 points and 37.7% from the floor, and perhaps most importantly, Tennessee only turned it over 7 times. The Vols weren't perfect, missing their last eight three pointers after a 4/6 start, and Quinton Chievous was the only Vol who scored off the bench. Kenny Hall didn't play - it'll be interesting to see if we see that again on Saturday.
It wasn't perfect, but the Vols were good, and very good for some long stretches tonight. It led to a clean sweep over Vanderbilt this year, the second time in three seasons the Vols have pulled that feat off, having now won five of six against the Dores. It pushes Tennessee to 13-10 (5-6) with seven games to play.
Kentucky is next, playing without Nerlens Noel which will hurt them on the floor, but don't be surprised if Kentucky plays with a heightened purpose in their first game without him against us. It is, as it should be, Tennessee's biggest game of the year. And there's no better time for Tennessee's best basketball to get even better.
We'll focus on the Cats later this week. For now, we're going to enjoy a big win and the great basketball that came with it. This is the Tennessee team we wanted to see this season, and their presence tonight was an incredibly enjoyable thing. And it's always good to sweep Vanderbilt. Enjoy this one...then let's get the next one.