Vanderbilt led Tennessee by 12 points with under seven minutes to play, but they couldn't protect that lead as they fell to their arch rivals in the second round of the SEC Tournament 67-61.
Damian Jones had a huge start, but the sophomore center failed to impact the final minutes of the game as Josh Richardson and the Vols took over. Tennessee used a 20-2 run in the final 6:21 to take the season series over the Commodores and, barring an NIT invite, end their season.
Jones had 20 points, 15 rebounds, and three blocks in the losing effort. Wade Baldwin added 15 points, five rebounds, and five assists. UT's Richardson led all scorers with 22 points.
The two teams battled through a frenetic first half that displayed just how much this rivalry game meant for either side. Vanderbilt took an early 16-9 lead, but the Vols responded with a 9-0 run that nearly forced Kevin Stallings to call one of his precious timeouts. The 'Dores used a media break to regroup and punched back with an 11-0 run that put them in control heading into the locker room. Damian Jones had 11 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks in the first 20 minutes as Vandy took a 38-32 lead at halftime.
Wade Baldwin, perhaps remembering his comments on the Volunteers from the last time these teams met, came out on fire to start the second half. A lay-up, dunk, lay-up sequence pushed the Vandy lead to a dozen points and sent Vol coach Donnie Tyndall scrambling for a timeout to stop the momentum. That strategy worked; Tennessee refused to go away despite foul trouble up front. Josh Richardson scored nine points during a 11-0 run that made it 47-45 at the 12-minute media timeout.
Like before, Vanderbilt came out of the woods to find an answer. Matthew Fisher-Davis's three-pointer punctuated a 10-2 run that restored the Commodore lead to double-digits. Vandy pushed that lead to 12 points before three straight threes brought the orange-clad fans in the crowd to their feet and kicked off a 12-0 run that tied it at 59-all with 3:15 left in the game. The two teams exchanged baskets before Robert Hubbs three-pointer finally helped the Vols break through and gave UT a 64-61 lead.
The 'Dores couldn't find a way to get it to Jones or connect from long range, and three Volunteer free throws closed this one out to put a seal on Vanderbilt's SEC Tournament run. Tennessee moves on to face #2 seed Arkansas at 6pm Friday evening. Vanderbilt's season ends with a 19-13 record, but there's still a chance that the Commodores could be invited to the NIT. That postseason experience would be invaluable to such a young team, but it's unclear if they'll be considered strong enough to make the field.