Tennessee took Vanderbilt’s best punch in the first half, and the Commodores continued to throw blows deep into the second. A Vandy team that loved to shoot threes but had struggled to make them erased that problem in the first half with an 8-of-15 performance, pushing their lead to 10. Quietly, the Vols were hot as well. In the second half, a more perimeter-focused defense held Vandy to 3-of-11 from the arc. The trade-off was better looks at the rim, particularly for freshman Saben Lee. His 21 points could have been the story.
But Tennessee’s quiet heat from the first half was an eruption in the second, and the night ended with, “It’s great…to be…” ringing through Memorial Gym. The Vols shot 56.6% from the floor, 7-of-13 from the arc, and 25-of-28 at the free throw line.
The Vols got the lead in a little more than seven minutes in the second half, sparked by Jordan Bowden. The two rivals continued to trade blows for the next three minutes, with Vandy’s last lead coming with 9:12 to play. Free throws from Matthew Fisher-Davis cut it back to two at 7:10. But from there, Vanderbilt’s punches lost their power. And Tennessee body-blowed them to death with Grant Williams, before Jordan Bone delivered the knockout with a three to put the Vols up 10 with 2:44 to go.
But it was Williams who did the real damage all night long, turning in one of the greatest performances of the post-Allan Houston era at Tennessee.
37 points was not only a career high, it is the most any Vol has scored since Ron Slay got 38 in 2003. That means tonight Williams, who scored 30 twice last year, passed the career highs of Steve Hamer (31), Scotty Hopson (32), Jordan McRae (35), Chris Lofton (35), and Kevin Punter’s 36-point game two years ago. He did it on just 20 shots, making 12 while adding 13-of-15 at the line.
Tennessee has played so many good teams this year, we’ve gotten used to seeing the opponent have a better answer for Williams. Vanderbilt, without Kornet in the middle, had none. And it was obvious from the opening tip, a glimmer of hope at halftime that Williams’ automatic looks from the paint were more likely to keep falling than Vanderbilt’s threes.
And Williams doesn’t get 37 without Adrmial Schofield getting 22, following up his 21 from the Kentucky win. He added nine rebounds, four of them offensive.
That glimmer of hope even when the Vols were down 10 on the road at Memorial? It’s one of the signs of a really good team: you learn not to give up on them, or even to panic. There may be other down-10’s in this year’s SEC. But the Vols – other than a few late minutes against pressure from North Carolina and Arkansas, and what looks less and less like an off night against Auburn – are remarkably steady.
Tennessee thrived in the non-conference with defense; they’ll probably have the lowest field goal percentage defense in the SEC through four games, and they should be 3-1. The Vol offense has been at its best all year when driven by great ball movement and assists. Tonight, Tennessee just got the ball to its best player and got out of the way. And it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Tennessee team willingly get into a game they need to score 90 points to win, and do just that, on the road. But yep, this Tennessee team checked that one off tonight too.
Just a big, satisfying win with a historic performance from Tennessee’s best player. The Vols go to 11-4 (2-2) and crack the Top 15 in KenPom. Up next is Texas A&M, ranked fifth in the AP poll at the start of SEC play and now 0-4 after a last second loss at Rupp. There are no nights off, but a Tennessee team capable of winning multiple ways is built to last in this conference.