KNOXVILLE — As Vanderbilt continues to snake its way through the Southeastern Conference schedule, it's looking increasingly more like a python. The 21st-ranked Commodores strike with lightning speed and eventually suffocate the opposition.
Wednesday’s 85-76 victory over the University of Tennessee, before 19,103 at Thompson-Boling Arena, was just the latest example. It was their first road victory in the series since 2004-05 and made them — at 5-0 — the SEC’s only unbeaten team in conference play. Three of those triumphs have been on the road, and they have travel plans for Saturday in Lexington, where they will face No. 1 Kentucky.
“I think our guys believe in what we do,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “Sometimes it’s just matter of refocusing on what it is we do. I thought we did that … at halftime, and we came out and played with a little more purpose in the second half.”
For the fourth time in conference play, VU squeezed out a victory after having trailed at halftime. Its ability to sort out an opponent and find ways to score manifested itself in the form of 54 points in the final 20 minutes, 23 more than they scored in the first 20.
The Commodores (16-3, 5-0) actually led by one with less than two minutes to play in the first half but gave up a 3-pointer to J.P. Prince with 1:13 remaining and a reverse layup to Steven Pearl with only seconds to go. They went to the locker room down by four, 35-31. Then again they also trailed Florida (by two), Alabama (seven) and Auburn (11) after 20 minutes but rallied each time behind poise and a lengthy bench.
“We knew we shouldn’t have given up points like that close to the half,” junior center A.J. Ogilvy said. “But they made some great plays. We just went to the half with confidence knowing that we’d come out and start the second half a lot better than we finished the first.”
They opened the half with an 8-4 run but did not go in front until an Ogilvy layup made it 56-55 with 9:28 left.
Then the quick strike was initiated by senior point guard Jermaine Beal, who scored eight straight points in 46 seconds and stretched a six-point advantage into a 14-point spread that sucked the life out of the home crowd as much as it did the home team.
“I made a couple shots early in the game and I felt confident about my shot,” Beal said. “So I just kept shooting. It came in the flow of the offense. … I was open, so I shot it.”
Tennessee (15-4, 3-2) never came up for air after that. It got no closer than nine points over the remaining 4:58 as foul troubles mounted for both sides. Prince — UT's leading scorer with 22 points — eventually fouled out, and Kenny Hall finished with four.
Vanderbilt managed to keep all of its players eligible, but four of them had four fouls. Its bench outscored UT’s by seven (19-12), which meant the starting five for each side played almost evenly.
“We had a lot of foul trouble,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “… We had the lead, but it put us in a situation where we had to go to the bench.”
Beal scored a season-high 25 points (two short of his career-high), 18 of them after halftime, and did not commit a turnover in 38 minutes on the floor. Four others, led by Ogilvy with 12 (10 in the second half), also scored in double figures.
“The game was kind of even there for most of the first half, and they made that run at the end of the first half. I was afraid we were going to look back and be really disappointed in that,” Stallings said. “… Obviously we were able to overcome that.
“This was a fun one to win. This was big for our team.”