Vanderbilt almost erased a sorry start with a furious finish. Almost.
After Kedren Johnson missed a layup, Kevin Bright’s putback hit the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded for a 58-57 loss at Tennessee on Tuesday night.
"I thought that we really got exactly what we wanted [on the final play]," coach Kevin Stallings said. "We were going to take the first good shot that we got, but we were absolutely OK with a shot toward the end of the clock and a chance at a tip. It worked out perfectly with the exception of the ball going in the basket."
The Commodores fell behind 12-0, didn’t score for nearly seven minutes and their first field goal came on Sheldon Jeter’s 3-pointer with 11:55 left in the first half.
But Vanderbilt (8-11, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) battled back and took a 23-22 lead on Kyle Fuller’s 3-point play with 2:36 left in the first half. That was only time the Commodores led.
"That's a lot of fight," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. "That's a boxing match. I knew those guys wouldn't roll over. [Stallings] does a great job of preparing those guys."
Fueled by 19 points and 11 rebounds from Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee (11-8, 3-4) led by as many as 11 with 9:07 remaining. Johnson responded with a layup and scored five points that sparked an 11-0 run. Jeter tied the game 52-52 with a 3-pointer with six minutes left.
Stokes answered a couple minutes later by slashing to the basket for a layup and drawing foul. He made the free throw and Jordan McRae hit two more for a 57-52 lead with 3:55 left.
Vanderbilt wasn’t done, though. Jeter nabbed a steal and scored on the other end. After Johnson made one of two free throws, James Siakam, making his first career start, scored on a putback of a missed free throw to cut the deficit to 58-57 with 29 seconds to go.
McRae missed the front end of a one-and-one and Siakam grabbed the rebound with 19 seconds left. Stallings called a timeout to set up the final play.
"Sometimes a game comes down to whether a ball goes in the basket or not and it's the cruelty sometimes of the game," Stallings said. "No coach wants to give up those two shots that we had at game point and we're able to get it right to where we want it at the basket, and it doesn't go in. It's a tough way to lose, but I'm happy with my team. We competed."
But Johnson’s contested layup went off the backboard and glanced off the rim.
Johnson scored 14 points despite four-of-13 shooting from the field. He was six-of-seven at the free-throw line. Center Josh Henderson came off the bench and tied a career-high with 13 points.
Skylar McBee added 10 points for the Volunteers, who have won two straight, each by a single point.
"Those games take a toll on me, but it's great to get a win like that and even more impressive to get those key stops," Martin said. "We missed some free throws and gave up an offensive rebound at the free throw line, but we did a great job down the stretch of getting some key stops."