The Tennessee Vols hosted Vanderbilt on Tuesday evening, looking to get back on the winning track.
The Vols were in desperate need of a win, as they continued to fight for some kind of postseason berth. Vanderbilt had its own intentions in mind: to break a five-game losing streak to Tennessee.
The first ten minutes of this game were a struggle, for both squads. Tennessee led 5-2 at the U16 break, thanks in part to some sloppy passes and bad looks. If Tennessee was going to ignite the late arriving crowd, they desperately needed Jordan Bowden to play a hand in the start.
It didn’t take long for Tennessee fans to realize that Vanderbilt came to play, draining back-to-back three pointers to cut the Vols lead to 9-8 at the U12 break. It’s never been pretty for Tennessee in the first half of games this season, besides the match-up with Arkansas last week.
The Vols were going to need a spark, which they would gladly take from Bowden. It’s no secret that Bowden has had his struggles this season shooting the basketball, but Rick Barnes has never lost faith in his senior guard.
As the first half wore on, it was obvious that Bowdenwas trying to takeover the game, the problem was that Vanderbilt was playing great defense, especially clamping down on the perimeter.
With the addition of Josiah-Jordan James back in the starting lineup, it gave the Vols an opportunity to spread the ball around more, in their high-low game. Bowden finished the first half leading Tennessee with 12 points. After a nice inbound play that was drawn up just before halftime, Jalen Johnson scored on a layup to tie things up 28-28.
Jordan Wright had come off the bench for Vanderbilt and scored 14 first half points for the Dores. Tennessee didn’t seem to have an answer for Wright.
Barnes said about the first half: “Just really disappointed in how the game got started. The turnovers are getting borderline ridiculous.”
It was a back-and-forth type game in the second half, as Tennessee struggled to break away from the Dores. Davonte Gaines continued to play good defense for the Vols, as they tried to get momentum back in their favor, leading 35-33 at the U16 break.
After a first half in which he only scored one point, John Fulkerson decided he wanted to takeover. Calling for the ball in the paint, Fulkerson forced Vanderbilt into some foul trouble with his aggressiveness. Fulkerson had seven points for the Vols at the U8 break in the second half.
But, the point in which you could tell it was turning in the Vols favor was at the 6:45 mark, as Fulkerson had a huge block and then followed it up with a nice basket at the rim, thanks to a nice pass from Santiago Vescovi. As Vanderbilt was driving the basket on the other end, Fulkerson once again saved the Vols with a huge block,
If there was a turning point in the game, those plays by Fulkerson were the spark that lit the fire
After a three by Vescovi, Tennessee led 58-48 at the U4 break. The Vols seemed to be putting the final touches on the Dores and getting out with a win.
Thanks in part to some lazy defense, Vandy had cut the lead down to 63-61, with just under one minute to play. Tennessee had gone on a 14-3 run by the :56 mark, but couldn’t put them away. Even with Tennessee going 9-of-11 from FG range over the stretch and Vandy shooting 2-of-11. This was the product of slowing down and not protecting the opportunities.
Barnes said “I don’t think the guys respected the game like we should, it could’ve been a 12-13 point game.”
Fulkerson led Tennessee in the second half with 16 points, going 8-of-9 from the free throw line. Vescovi had 10 points of his own. Both Bowden and Fulkerson finished the game with 17. With James not scoring any points on and the bench only scoring nine points, Tennessee fans should be very thankful for the 12 first half points from Bowden.
Barnes knows how big the remaining schedule can be for the Vols. “The playoffs have started for us. I think it’s great we have a tough schedule coming down the stretch. it gives us the chance to add some quad one wins. Our schedule has been great up to this point, but now we gotta win some games. We’ve got a chance to play the top part of our league, which this time of year you want those type of opportunities,” he said.
With a trip to Auburn on deck, this is the opportunity that Tennessee needs to take advantage of, if the Vols plan on playing in late March. This team has games left on their schedule that could make it hard for the NCAA Selection Committee to turn down the Vols if they can win a few.
With the way this season has played out, not many have predicted Tennessee still making a run, but the opportunity starts on The Plains on Saturday.