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Tennessee fights off Vanderbilt again, wins 73-64

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NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee entered Saturday night looking for their seventh straight win in SEC play, welcoming in-state rival Vanderbilt to town for their second meeting of the season. The Commodores gave the Volunteers all they could handle last month in Nashville, and they did so again tonight.

Tennessee’s balanced offense started hot, spreading the ball around between Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler and John Fulkerson. Rick Barnes once again gave Brandon Huntley-Hatfield the nod in place of Olivier Nkamhoua, who is out for the season with an ankle injury.

Huntley-Hatfield responded with the first bucket of the game, before giving way to Fulkerson, who had a strong first half. Fulky connected on all three of his shots from the floor in the first half, giving the Vols some much-needed solid minutes in the post.

Vescovi drilled a couple of three-pointers, while Zeigler added eight first half points. Tennessee took a 44-32 lead into the halftime break, despite getting zero points from Kennedy Chandler who got into early foul trouble.

Vescovi opened the second half with another triple to push the lead to 15 points. Chandler picked up foul No. 3 on the next possession, forcing the five-star freshman point guard back to the bench.

Vanderbilt responded with back to back to back three-pointers of their own, sparking an 11-0 run to claw back. Myles Stute hit his fourth three of the game, catching fire when the Commodores needed a spark the most.

A 16 point lead vanished in 62 seconds, and we suddenly had a ballgame. Very quickly, Tennessee’s offense had gone ice cold, and Barnes was looking for a spark with Chandler still on the bench. Vescovi was also forced to the bench with three fouls. It was up to Zeigler and Justin Powell, and it just wasn’t working early in the second half.

Scottie Pippen Jr. scored his 16th and 17th point of the game at the rim to cut the lead to just three. He posted up Zeigler and scored on the next possession to cut it to a 52-51 game.

Fulkerson came up with an answer, finally ending a 17-2 Vanderbilt run. Tennessee’s super senior converted an and-one to stop the bleeding. Barnes had seen enough. He sent Chandler and Vescovi back out there with 11 minutes to play.

Vescovi picked up his fourth just two minutes later, and back to the bench he went. It was a call that could have gone either way, but it’s also a spot where Vescovi needs to be smarter.

With Pippen getting his final rest of the game, Zeigler hit a corner jumper to give Tennessee a 57-51 lead. That took us to the under-eight break.

The two sides traded three-pointers, and then Pippen made a tough contested layup. He picked up his fourth foul on the next possession, however.

It was a 61-59 lead for Tennessee with just five minutes to play. James hit two free throws, and Chandler found his first bucket on a putback attempt after that. Chandler found his second bucket in transition on the next possession.

Chandler went on a 6-0 run by himself, pushing Tennessee out to a 69-59 lead with three minutes to play. Stute hit a three for Vanderbilt, and Pippen connected on a couple of free throws to slash the lead back down to 69-64.

Pippen missed a layup with one minute to go that would have cut the lead to just three. Stute missed on the next possession, and the ‘Dores were running out of time quickly.

James hit two more free throws to finish this one off.

Tennessee held on to win 73-64. Zeigler led the way with 16 points, making every play possible down the stretch for the Volunteers. Fulkerson had a nice game with 12 points, while James put the Commodores away at the free throw stripe, hitting 9-10.

Pippen gave it all he had for Vanderbilt, scoring a game high 23 points. Tennessee didn’t have an answer for him, but Jerry Stackhouse’s bunch ran out of firepower down the stretch.

The Volunteers will be back in action on Tuesday night, hosting Kentucky for a 9 p.m. ET tipoff.