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Why We Love Basketball: Tennessee 87 Vanderbilt 75

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Vanderbilt was on fire. Tennessee was better.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

This was one of the most entertaining wins of the post-Pearl era.

Rick Barnes had the Vols sell out to stop Vanderbilt at the three point line. It was relatively successful: the Commodores still shot 42.9% from the arc, but attempted only 14 of them. The easier path to success was to go to the hole against Tennessee’s overly-aggressive perimeter defense, and by proxy to the free throw line: Vanderbilt was 17-of-21 (81%) from the stripe. They shot 53.1% from the floor and turned it over only nine times.

And tonight, in Memorial Gym, Tennessee’s young team was simply better.

When the Vols had been successful this year, they’d done much of it by getting to the free throw line. Not tonight: Tennessee shot zero free throws in the first half and padded an 11-of-14 performance late. Without Detrick Mostella this was a 31% three-point shooting team.

Tonight: 34-of-58 from the floor, 58.6%. 8-of-15 from the arc for 53.3%. Eighteen assists to six turnovers. Against major conference opponents this year the Vols had not made more than 28 shots (Georgia Tech) before tonight. And that 18-6 assist-turnover ratio? The best the Vols had done against a major conference foe before tonight was 15-8 against Arkansas.

The flow of this game was incredible; you felt every decimal of those shooting percentages for both teams. Tennessee pushed the lead to 29-20 late in the first half before Vanderbilt cut it back to two. The Vols went up 10 with 13:38 to go in a run that included a technical foul on Matthew Fisher-Davis. It took Vanderbilt less than four minutes to get it back to four. A big shot was just a normal possession in this game. But still at four two minutes later, Tennessee kept their foot on the gas pedal: after Grant Williams pushed it to six, the Vols closed out their fiery three-point shooting with threes from Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bone, and then Bone again to push it to 14 and end the threat.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Bone was a revelation: 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, 4-of-5 from the arc, five assists and one turnover. He’s not going to shoot 80% from three every night, but if this is a flash of what he can be when healthy, look out.

Meanwhile Tennessee got a 12-9 with four blocks from Grant Williams; Vanderbilt didn’t have the post players to challenge him. Robert Hubbs was steady with 12 points and two huge alley-oops. And Admiral Schofield, who had to leave the game twice with a turned ankle and a blow to the face, still finished with 15 points in 23 minutes.

In a fast-paced, everybody-is-making-everything game, the Vols took the lead on a Shembari Phillips three with 10:40 to go in the first half and never gave it back. This was a joy to watch and an incredible accomplishment. Tennessee goes to 9-8 (2-3), but snaps a three game losing streak and has still played five of the top eight SEC teams in KenPom to open league play. One of those top eight teams: Tennessee, now 55th in KenPom and sixth in the SEC.

What’s coming next will be a bit of a different challenge: Ole Miss (10-7, 1-4) in Oxford, a game where you can get away with the phrase, “I expect the Vols to win.” Tennessee has now won three road games, and anytime you beat Vandy in this place you celebrate. There was much, much more to lift up tonight than just that. The play was beautiful, the future looked bright, and the present ain’t too bad right now either. This was another pay-attention win, incredibly entertaining and a big one at a rival’s place. Rick Barnes and these kids deserve our attention and applause for not just another superb effort, but some of the best offensive execution we’ve seen this decade.

This was fun. Let’s keep doing that. Go Vols.