When it comes to crucial conference games, you need your best players to step up - and the Vols received just that against Vanderbilt on Tuesday night.
The Vols rode a career-high scoring performance from sophomore forward Grant Williams and a spectacular shooting night from junior forward Admiral Schofield to victory over in-state rival Vanderbilt in Memorial Gym.
As of late, the UT vs. Vanderbilt rivalry has been a lot more even in all sports these days. No longer is Vanderbilt the doormat they once were.
The Vols entered their matchup against the Commodores looking to even things up after losing three of their last five against the rival, and they needed a big win to stay ahead of them in the conference standings.
Coming off a big win against Kentucky, the Vols looked to even their SEC conference record with a win on Ingram Court. Their opponent, the Vanderbilt Commodores, owned the worst record in the SEC at 6-9, but the Vols knew Tuesday's game would not be an easy victory.
The game got off to a slow start as it took eight combined possessions before each team was on the board. Tennessee used good ball movement and took advantage of some early Vanderbilt turnovers and missed shots to get out to a 11-7 lead, but it didn't take long for the Commodores to come firing back.
Vanderbilt started off 1-6 from the floor but hit their next eight straight shots to build a 20-18 lead midway through the first half. They were able to have success by stretching the Tennessee defense in order to create passing lanes on the inside.
If it weren't for Williams' first half heroics, the Vols would have been totally screwed going into halftime. Not only did he lead the Vols with 17 points, but he scored 11 of the Vols' final 13 points going into halftime. Tennessee had no answer on offense nor defense as the Dores went on a 15-5 run and hit 50% of their three-point shots in the first half - including a buzzer-beater by Riley LaChance - as they built a ten point lead, 45-35.
The Vols shot 52% from the floor, but the offensive onslaught by the Commodores (a season-high eight three-pointers made) proved to be too much for Tennessee's defense. All of a sudden, Tennessee found themselves in a similar position akin to this past Saturday's game against Kentucky.
It was an exciting first half that featured seven ties and nine lead changes, but unfortunately, the Vols were on the wrong end of the excitement.
Good ball movement and excellent post/guard play were the catalysts to Vanderbilt's success in the first half, could coach Rick Barnes make the necessary adjustments at halftime to get the Vols back in the driver's seat?
The second half got off to an extremely quick start. The Vols scored on their first five possessions but Vanderbilt was no slouch during the run, scoring on their first three possessions until LaChance was denied by Josh Fulkerson.
Schofield delivered a sick up-and-around layup to shrink Vandy's lead to five at 52-47, but Matthew Fisher-Davis was able to respond on the very next possession, hitting a three-point shot with a hand in his face to put the Dores back up by eight, 55-47.
The Vols were getting plenty of shots - and making them - but Vanderbilt was just simply shooting better and getting better shots. And making them. 60% of them.
That's right. The Dores had made 60% of their shots for the game, but were up by just two possessions, 56-50 with under 15 minutes to play.
But sooner or later, teams get cold. When that happens, it's up to the good teams to take advantage of the situation.
Tennessee did just so, scoring ten straight points to retake the lead, 57-56. The run included an incredible play where James Daniel III grabbed a rebound and instead of shooting, dished it to Schofield at the top of the key, who then crushed the shot from downtown. Vanderbilt went 0-3 with an offensive foul during that stretch.
That didn't keep Vandy down though. Within moments they had reclaimed the lead, leading 62-60 with just over ten minutes to play.
So naturally, the Vols went with what had been working all night - Grant Williams.
He made play after play - including a huge lay-up after appearing to get injured - to get the Vols up, 72-70. Williams then made an incredible offensive rebound that led to a just-as-incredible layup by Schofield to put the Vols back up by four, 74-70.
Tennessee began to pull away after a full-court press and great outside shooting on offense had the Vols up by ten, 83-73, with just over 2:30 minutes to play in the game.
The Vols would go on to defeat Vanderbilt, 92-84. Grant Williams finished with a career-high and team-leading 37 points. Admiral Schofield finished second on the team with 22 points.
The Vols are now 2-2 in SEC play and they have a huge game against Texas A&M this Saturday, January 13th.