The Commodores' lack of composure with the lead came back to bite them again, as arch-rival Tennessee escaped with a 67-64 win Saturday afternoon in Knoxville.
It was a fanhood-affirming win for the Vols, who now have a spark of life in a season that had been heading towards the gutter after a 3-6 stretch. Tennessee withstood an early Vanderbilt barrage to finish strong and put away their in-state rivals. However, the 'Dores certainly didn't help themselves down the stretch, as the team fell apart over the final eight minutes and failed to generate any meaningful offense.
Vanderbilt led 30-13 in the first half and by double digits in the second half but couldn't keep their level of play up for the full 40 minutes in the loss. This has been a recurring theme for the 'Dores, who have blown leads in games against South Carolina and Missouri earlier in the season. Defensive rebounding was the main culprit once again, as Tennessee took advantage of second chances to claw back into the game and secure the win. The Vols pulled down 16 offensive boards for the game and erased an early rebounding deficit.
The game also featured some shoddy last-minute play; a trademark of this 2010-2011 team. A pair of missed layups let the Vols back into the game in the final minute of the first half, and this set the tone for what was to come. Trailing 65-64, Jeffery Taylor drove to the paint and hit the deck, sliding across the floor. Surprisingly, no call was made (for either a foul or a travel), and the 'Dores were unable to capitalize on the confusion. John Jenkins stepped out of bounds just seconds later, handing the ball back to Tennessee.
Though Vanderbilt held tough and forced a Melvin Goins miss (blocked by Festus Ezeli), the 'Dores couldn't secure the rebound - giving UT the ball back with a one point lead and 18 seconds to burn off the clock. The possession effectively sealed the game for the Vols, who hit a pair of free throws and then defended Vandy's last gasp inbounds play to win. Vanderbilt had just two field goals in the last 7:30 of play - one of which was Kyle Fuller's circus-shot layup.
Like Bruce Ellington before him, Scotty Hopson shook off a rough first half performance to torch the Commodores down the stretch. Hopson finished with 16 points and six rebounds. John Jenkins led the 'Dores with 21 points, and the team was driven offensively almost exclusively by its backcourt. Festus Ezeli defended well, but couldn't find his offense against Brian Williams. Lance Goulbourne, on the other hand, had one of his worst games as a Commodore and showcased the importance of having Andre Walker's depth at power forward.
Once again, Vanderbilt saw a big lead evaporate in the midst of a terrible clutch performance. The team is just 1-4 in games decided either in overtime or by five points or less. More disappointingly, the Commodores have failed to improve in their crunch time experiences as the season has played on. If this team wants to play deep into March, they'll need to understand how to play with urgency and maintain their efficiency. If they can't, Vandy fans will be treated to more performances like today - and the question of whether an entire fanbase can get a collective ulcer might just be answered.