In a matter of moments, the game slowed down — and so did Vanderbilt’s point total.
Having dropped 42 points through the first 27 minutes and jumping out to an 11-point lead, the 18th-ranked Commodores seemed to be in control.
Then things began to play into Tennessee’s hands — because they did. With a harassing defense and a slow half-court offense, the Volunteers held Vanderbilt to just two baskets from the field and nine points the rest of the way. As a result, the Commodores once again blew a double-digit second-half lead to their in-state rival and fell 60-51 on Tuesday night in front of a sellout of 14,316 at Memorial Gymnasium.
The 51 points were the fewest for Vanderbilt in more than two years — also against Tennessee. They also were the fewest ever against Tennessee at Memorial and the fewest against the Volunteers at home since a 50-44 win in 1950.
“I thought we had guys that for some reason decided they were going to be individual players instead of team players,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “An incredible number of turnovers where we are trying to do things we are not capable of doing. They did a great job defensively on us, but we somewhat made it easy for them at times by getting out of what we like to do.”
Vanderbilt, which led by as many as 17 in a loss at Knoxville on Jan. 15, grabbed a 42-31 lead on a Festus Ezeli slam dunk with 13:06 left. That capped off an 11-4 run to open the second half, and the Commodores (20-7, 8-5 Southeastern Conference) appeared to be headed toward their sixth straight victory.
Then the carelessness — as Stallings put it — started to show up. Vanderbilt’s miscues started to become magnified, as 16 turnovers led to 21 Tennessee points.
“We gave the ball up in bad areas, which led to a lot of fastbreak points for them,” Vanderbilt’s Jeffery Taylor, who had nine points and four turnovers, said. “They got a lot of layups and easy baskets off our turnovers. Those are very deadly.”
Guards Melvin Goins, Steven Pearl and Scotty Hopson collected three steals each and the Volunteers (17-11, 7-6) finished with 15 in all. They came in a variety of ways — off simple man-to-man defense, from behind, in transition.
“Turnovers can fall into two categories: carelessness or selfish and we had a bunch of both,” Stallings said. “We had some just crazy turnovers in transition. Just dribbling the ball and give it to them.”
Hopson also started to break free. Bottled up by Taylor and Lance Goulbourne, he had just seven points at halftime. But the 6-foot-7 Hopson decided to abandon the jump shot in favor of drives, and it paid off. Even when he didn’t get a layup, he drew contact. He made six straight free throws in a two-minute span. A pair with 1:57 left gave Tennessee a 53-51 advantage, its first lead since a 24-22 edge with 3:04 remaining in the first half. The Vols held on from there, and Vanderbilt didn’t score the final 5:03.
“He just gets the ball and attacks the rim and does a pretty good job at drawing fouls, I guess,” Stallings said of Hopson, who finished with a game-high 19 points. “If you want to slow the game down, you can slow the game down, generally speaking. They like to play slow and we don’t. And it worked for them.”
Post players Steve Tchiengang, who scored all 10 of his points before halftime, and Ezeli , who had 11 points, both fouled out despite just having one foul combined at halftime.
“That is ridiculous,” Stallings said. “We didn’t play with focus. We didn’t play with aggressiveness. We got outfought and that is why we got beat.
The Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer, John Jenkins (19.9 points per game), finished with just 11 points, his lowest performance in a SEC game this season. He had just two points after halftime and missed last five shots. Stallings didn’t feel like getting the ball to Jenkins was the issue as he was 4-of-13 from the field but also had five turnovers.
Still, Jenkins felt he could have done more, especially against Josh Bone, a Brentwood Academy grad who had the responsibility of guarding Jenkins for most of the game.
“I think it was more of me not getting open myself and not moving around as often and using my strengths to my ability,” he said. “We just weren’t moving like we usually do and weren’t passing the ball. We were holding the ball, waiting for someone else to do something.
“... I think we got comfortable [with the lead] and it ended up biting us in the butt.”
• In six years under coach Bruce Pearl, Tennessee has swept the Vanderbilt series three times. The Volunteers have won seven of the last 11 against the Commodores and lead the all-time series 110-69.
• Tennessee had dropped four of its last five games but improved to 4-4 in SEC East play with this victory.
• Vanderbilt shot just 18.8 percent (3-of-16) from 3-point range and Tennessee was just 2-of-15 (13.3 percent). The shooting percentage from outside is the lowest of the season for the Commodores and the three made 3-pointers is the fewest in more than a year.
• Vanderbilt forward Andre Walker played in his second straight game for the first time in nearly two months. Walker, who sprained his ankle in late December and missed 13 straight games, came off the bench again and played 20 minutes. He went scoreless with four rebounds, three assists, two steals and two turnovers.
• As Pearl left the floor after the game, he waved to Tennessee fans and even blew kisses. It has been a trying season for Pearl, who was suspended for eight SEC games and is unexpected to receive a letter within the next couple days from the NCAA with its findings from investigation into recruiting violations.
“As I walked to the corner, there were a lot of fans there. I was trying to find my wife, and the governor,” he said. “I looked up and all our fans still stuck around. I wanted to recognize our fans for being here and that is what makes it such a great rivalry… to hear their support. I realize we gave our fans something to cheer about. We put our fans through a lot this year, on and off the court."