NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On the night Shan Foster faced No. 1 Tennessee during his Vanderbilt career – February 26, 2008 – the anticipation of the marquee matchup began for Foster before he stepped foot inside Memorial Gymnasium.
“I remember driving to the arena from my dorm,” Foster said. “It was snowing outside, and yet there was a line of Vanderbilt fans wrapped around the outside of Memorial waiting to get in. Walking out of the locker room for pregame shooting, the fans were already loud, anticipating a great night. I mean, we felt the energy in warm-ups. It was really an incredible experience.”
Eleven years after Foster’s clash with a top-ranked Volunteers squad, Vanderbilt welcomes No. 1 Tennessee to Memorial Gymnasium on Wednesday (6 p.m. CT on ESPN2). The latest installment of the in-state rivalry has churned up memories of the Vols’ last trip to West End as the top-ranked team in the country. That night, No. 14 Vanderbilt upset No. 1 Tennessee, 72-69, ending the Volunteers’ stint as the nation’s top-ranked team less than 48 hours after it began.
The Vols had ventured to Nashville fresh off a 66-62 road upset of No. 1 Memphis the previous Saturday. That victory had catapulted UT to the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll for the first time that Monday. Tennessee was 25-2 and riding a nine-game win streak as it ventured to visit the 14th-ranked Commodores (23-4, 8-4 SEC) on national television.
The game was sold out. The matchup was live on ESPN. In all, the stage was set for an epic clash.
“Very few athletes get a chance to play the No. 1 team in the country,” Foster said. “You know you may go the rest of your career and not have this opportunity again. Leading up to the game, the level of focus and attention to detail in practice, taking care of your body, all those things are of the utmost importance. You want to maximize this opportunity as much as possible.”
Indeed, Vanderbilt was ready for its rival’s arrival. Alongside Foster, the 2007-08 Commodores boasted firepower in freshman big man A.J. Ogilvy and a sharpshooting backcourt duo in Alex Gordon and guard Jermaine Beal. They were ranked 14th nationally and were 23-4 (8-4 SEC) entering the matchup. Tennessee, meanwhile, suited up an All-American guard in Chris Lofton to complement its own power in the paint in forwards Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith.
In front of a sold-out “White Out” crowd at Memorial Gym, Vanderbilt was the aggressor early. It jumped out to a 23-9 lead by the midway point of the first half. But Tennessee wasn’t finished. A Smith free throw cut Vanderbilt’s lead to 26-23 with 4:25 left until half.
The Dores took a 31-28 lead into intermission, having held Tennessee to just 8-34 shooting in the first half. Foul trouble limited Ogilvy to just eight minutes by halftime, but Foster had 13 early points.
“Over the course of the game, there’s going to be adversity, and Coach [Kevin] Stallings prepared us for that,” Foster said. “He told us there would be ups and downs. It’s how you respond to that roller coaster that determines who would win the game.”
The second half was a more competitive affair in front of a rowdy crowd at Memorial. The lead changed four times until Vanderbilt’s Alan Metcalfe drilled a 3-pointer for a 46-43 lead with 14:20 left. Though the Vols threatened, the Commodores never relinquished the lead from there.
No. 14 Vanderbilt’s 72-69 win over No. 1 Tennessee was the Commodores’ fourth straight victory over a top-ranked team at Memorial Gym. The postgame scene was euphoric for Commodore Nation, with Foster and his teammates high-fiving fans in the student section. “I still remember the crowd,” Foster said. “They could feel it.”
Afterward, the Volunteers credited Vanderbilt’s energy.
“They came out with the passion and played with more intensity than us,” Lofton told reporters . “They wanted it more than us tonight, and it showed. They got the win and they deserved it.”
In the end, the senior Foster finished with a game-high 32 points, finishing 9-13 from the field and 6-9 from 3-point land. Other players might shy away from the spotlight, but Foster – who finished his career as Vanderbilt’s all-time leading scorer – always embraced those moments.
“There’s an extra edge playing against a No. 1 team or a rival,” Foster said. “But every game, it’s important for players to find something that gets you excited. For me, it was always the energy of the crowd. I just loved playing on a big stage.”
This past Monday, the Volunteers returned to the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll for the first time since falling to the Commodores that night in 2008. The situations, of course, are different; Bryce Drew and Rick Barnes headline new coaching staffs with entirely different rosters. But just like in 2008, Tennessee’s first test as the nation’s new No. 1 team comes against Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Now, as Vanderbilt looks to turn its own season around, Foster said these Dores can’t ignore the opportunity in front of them.
“The reality is, somebody has to have a special night,” Foster said. “This cannot be business as usual. You can’t sit around and wait and hope that somebody else takes the bull by the horns. Somebody has to come out with the intention of having a special night. You look at Saben Lee. You look at Simi Shittu. You look at Joe Toye. Somebody has to step up and say, this is going to be my night.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.