NASHVILLE — Tennessee locked down 18th-ranked Vanderbilt in the final minutes Tuesday night and rallied to steal a crucial victory in Memorial Gym.
The Volunteers, down 11 points midway through the second half, held the Commodores scoreless in the final five minutes of a 60-51 win.
UT (17-11, 7-6 SEC) at least briefly squashed NCAA tournament bubble talk by beating Vanderbilt (20-7, 8-5), which had won five consecutive games before collapsing on its home floor.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
In a word ... toughness. The Vols played solid defense most of the night, but their halfcourt offense was as bad as it’s been all season — and that’s truly saying something. But they kept pushing Tuesday night, and they prevailed with a big, big win. They went 11-for-12 from the free-throw line in the final three minutes, and their defense was sensational. Vanderbilt didn’t score a single point in the final five minutes. Much maligned senior point guard Melvin Goins played his best half of the season in the second half, offensively and defensively, and Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris sank clutch free throw after clutch free throw. Nashville native Josh Bone didn’t score a point in his senior homecoming, but the senior guard was one of several Vols who locked down SEC scoring leader John Jenkins. Vanderbilt’s sweet-shooting sophomore scored just 11 points — barely more than half his average — on 4-for-13 shooting, and 1-for-6 from 3-point range.
WHAT WENT WRONG
UT won this game with toughness, and because it stole the ball from Vanderbilt 15 times. It was a defensive masterpiece, but no team can rely on that every night. This was a big night for the Vols — who desperately needed something to smile about — but the bottom line is they must fix this halfcourt offense. Defense and rebounding can always be the key, but it can’t be everything. You usually have to score more points to beat good teams, and though the Vols’ free-throw finish was every bit as big as it was surprising, you can’t always count on 12 trips to the charity stripe in the final three minutes. And, for the sake of basketball fans everywhere, a five-man rotation of Golden, junior guard Cameron Tatum, Bone, senior forward Steven Pearl and sophomore forward Kenny Hall probably shouldn’t see the floor again in a big game. That brief brain cramp nearly cost UT the game.
The Vols host talented, mercurial Mississippi State (14-12, 6-6) on Saturday at 6 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena. Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, State at home has long been considered a game UT needs to win — but that might not be easy, depending on which side of the Bulldogs is on display in Knoxville. Mississippi State, which is second in the SEC West, hosts lowly LSU on Wednesday night.
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