It was never comfortable, but Tennessee did have control of Wednesday night’s game against Vanderbilt down the stretch.
Until they didn’t.
Up two points with 18 seconds left, Julian Phillips had a clear look at a dunk that would have made it a two possession game, but he turned it down in an attempt to run clock. Vanderbilt proceeded to foul five times, finally sending Santiago Vescovi to the line. Vescovi missed the front end of a one and one, and Vanderbilt’s Tyrin Lawrence nailed a three from the corner to win it.
It was a disastrous final sequence that ended up handing Tennessee their third loss in SEC play — their second in the last three games.
After the game, Rick Barnes was predictably agitated.
“Well, the one thing we said, we can’t give up a 3-point shot,” Barnes said of the final possession. “We said we felt like they would either try to go inside to Liam (Robbins), or they would get it downhill. We said we’ve got to make it a tough shot at the rim. But under no circumstances can we give up a 3-point shot. And we did. And they made it, so give them credit for it.”
The Tennessee defense lost track of Lawrence, who came wide open in the corner. You couldn’t ask for a better look, and he didn’t miss.
It was all made possible by a missed free throw and a rookie mistake from Julian Phillips. The decision not to dunk with 18 seconds left ended up setting off a string of mistakes, allowing Vanderbilt to get their first win over Tennessee since 2017.
“Come on, he’s got to do that,” Barnes said of the decision not to dunk. “I told him you don’t turn down a 100-percent shot. I mean, you’ve got to do that. He’ll learn from it. But he’s got to do that. With 18 seconds, they’ve got five fouls they’ve got to give, they’re going to have to foul. So we’ve got to go. When you get a wide-open dunk, you’ve got to give it.
“We have to get smarter. We have enough experience out there. You can look at Julian not dunking the ball. I am not sure what was going through his head there. We told him, we had five — I don’t think he will ever make that mistake again. He is the guy out there that hasn’t played a lot of minutes. Everyone else has played. It comes down to where sometimes you have to come down and get a basket. They did and they got it.”
Tennessee, now 19-5 overall, is officially in a funk. The bad loss to Florida, the ugly offense against Auburn, and now losing to a bad Vandy team — Barnes and his staff have a lot to correct with just a handful of weeks left before tournament time.