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SEC Tournament Second Round: Tennessee 67 Vanderbilt 61 - The Road Home

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Donnie Tyndall's first team and Josh Richardson's last team gets its signature moment, and the chance to make another one.

The biggest assist of Richardson's career
The biggest assist of Richardson's career
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

When I was in college, a friend and I got into DragonBall Z.  We usually watched it at his place, with the remote in his hand.  And like a little kid, as the show went on, he would get more and more excited.  Every time he did, he turned the volume up.

I don't know how many of you have seen DragonBall Z, or how many of you might admit it in the comments, but five out of six episodes are basically yelling.  They spend about a week powering up, and then they unleash, and then the other guy powers up to a previously unseen level, rinse repeat.  It's like watching Hogan hulk up for a solid week.

So my friend would keep pressing volume up as the episode progressed, and never turn it back down during commercials or nonexistent down moments.  And then sometimes other people would walk in toward the end of our guilty pleasure, where it's just two guys watching cartoonish yelling at insanely high volumes.  And there's just no good explanation.

Tonight I was at an out of town meeting, trying to keep up with the first half on my phone.  When I got in my car the Vols were closing a 47-34 Vanderbilt lead to 47-45.  And it was, to no surprise, the Josh Richardson show.

Tennessee's senior leader scored 13 of UT's first 15 points in the second half.  His two free throws brought the Vols within two at the under 12 media timeout.  When Vanderbilt pushed it back to seven he stuck a jumper to bring it back to five, scoring his 20th point with 10 minutes still to play.

At this point in the Vol Network broadcast, both Bob Kesling and Bert Bertelkamp were imploring somebody, anybody to help Richardson.  He had 20.  The other eight guys had 27.  Armani Moore was 0-for-the-evening.

And so when Vanderbilt extended the lead, the narrative became clear.  Moore missed.  Derek Reese missed.  Devon Bauklman missed.  Moore missed again.  And Vanderbilt sandwiched a three from Matthew Fisher-Davis with two buckets by Damian Jones, and the Commodores led 59-47 at the under eight timeout, 7:01 to play.  Jones, it should absolutely be noted, finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocks.

The weight was too heavy for Richardson to carry by himself.  His senior season would end the same way it looked in Thompson-Boling on Saturday, with a jersey covering a tear-stained face and all of us feeling a kid like this deserved so much better.  Even one of his better individual performances wasn't enough.  Vanderbilt would move on, Tennessee would go home, and the last image of this team would be an inability to get any help for Richardson and a very uncertain future without him.

But basketball is a funny game.  And sometimes, even if for just a few possessions, it really is one team just making shots and the other one not.

Robert Hubbs hit a deep three to cut it back to single digits.  Vanderbilt missed a three.  Hubbs missed a three, but Derek Reese got the rebound and the ball found its way to Kevin Punter, who splashed a three to cut it to six.  Vanderbilt missed a three.  Derek Reese made a three.

And I started turning the volume up.

The Dores were shooting an other-worldly percentage from the arc coming into the SEC Tournament.  Tonight they went 6 of 26 (23.1%), the worst they've shot in SEC play this year.  At the seven minute mark the Vols were 3 of 20 from the arc (15.0%).  They would hit four of five in the last seven minutes.  I don't know.  I just kept turning the volume up.

Sometimes I think I'd like to have Bertelkamp just follow me around and narrate my life.  He's the best because he gives validation to our inner fan voice, where every call is an injustice and every made shot matters.  And so we're getting increasingly impressive returns on our investment in his voice, as the Vols knocked home three threes to pull it to 59-56 at the under 4.

(By the way, if any Vol Network types are reading:  bring back the old intro music!  The winning percentage speaks for itself!)

And now, Josh Richardson was getting help.  Kesling repeatedly pointed out the way the Vols worked hard to box Damian Jones out, as the shots kept coming off for Vanderbilt.  Robert Hubbs hit a free throw to pull Tennessee within two.  When Vandy missed another three, it was Hubbs again against contact, this time tying it up.

Some will be said about Vandy getting tight at the end of this game, which can happen when you're playing, "let's run clock" with seven minutes to go and suddenly find the game tied less than four minutes later.  But don't forget, Riley LaChance stuck a big bucket just seconds later to put the Dores right back up.  I remember hearing that and thinking, "uh oh."  You could even sense a little bit of it just through the radio broadcast, the change in tone from the Tennessee fans to the Vanderbilt fans.

But that would be the last we heard of the Vandy fans.

Tennessee went back to Richardson, who stuck a jumper to tie the game again with 2:57 to play.  Richardson was 0 for 5 from the three point line tonight but 8 of 11 inside the arc.  Then Derek Reese forced a steal.  Richardson went back to the basket, was double teamed, and as the picture at the top of this story shows, kicked it out to a wide open Robert Hubbs.

He buried the three, the Vols had the lead, and I may have done irreparable damage to the speakers in my car, while adding my own voice to the glorious nonsense.

That may have technically been the dagger.  But the real twist came on the next possession:  Vanderbilt, for all their shooting and all their efficiency on offense, couldn't find a shot against Tennessee's zone, newly infused with life.  And with 90 seconds to go, the Vols forced a shot clock violation.  It wasn't just hot shooting, it was defense.  It wasn't just Richardson, it was everyone.

Richardson and Kevin Punter would both come up with steals on Vandy's next two possessions just for good measure, a young team in panic.  The Vols hit three of five free throws to seal it, including one taken after fouling out Wade Baldwin.

I secretly love Baldwin, by the way.  Anybody can talk trash after you've played well.  Baldwin told Tennessee he was coming for them, and for we the fans, before the game in Knoxville.  And then he did it.  I might have clapped in the other guy's face too.  And then he had a 16-5-5 tonight.  Guys like him make good rivalries great for a few years.

But he absolutely could not stop Josh Richardson tonight.  And it would be Richardson, jubilantly, triumphantly, and deservedly, dribbling out the clock in the final seconds.  The Vols end on a 20-2 run and win 67-61.  His career doesn't have to end, not yet, not without one of its best memories.  Nineteen years ago Steve Hamer had 31 points and 21 rebounds on a Thursday night against Alabama for a .500 Tennessee team.  The '96 Vols may not be remembered fondly on the whole, but I remember that game, that night in the SEC Tournament.  I remember the way it ended.  I remember Hamer.  We have more than just tonight to remember with Josh Richardson.  But I hope there were 14 year olds all over Big Orange Country watching.  Because the way he played tonight shouldn't be forgotten.

Hamer's performance got a .500 Tennessee team into the NIT.  This year's bunch almost certainly needs one more, and they will once again have to earn it as two-seed Arkansas awaits.  But just as this game meant something for Josh Richardson, it meant something for Donnie Tyndall too.  The facts are the facts, but tonight feels like Tennessee's best win of the season, and it will be remembered that way, especially because it was Vanderbilt.  And the truth is, having such a good win be one of your last memories?  That's going to make everybody feel a little better about things around here.  Even if we lose tomorrow, Tennessee and Donnie Tyndall already got the win people are going to remember most.

Unless we win tomorrow night.

Go Vols.