NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As a team entering Wednesday still in search of its first SEC win, Vanderbilt could have easily seen the writing on the wall as No. 1 Tennessee ventured to Memorial Gymnasium.
Instead, the Commodores authored a gritty performance that nearly dethroned the top-ranked team in the land. Along the way, they also proved their season is far from finished.
“Really proud of our guys,” Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said. “Man, we had some huge strides since our last couple of games. I’m just crushed for them, crushed for them that it didn’t turn out in a win with all that effort.”
No. 1 Tennessee needed overtime to escape Vanderbilt, 88-83, in the Vols’ first test since ascending to the top of the Associated Press poll earlier this week. This was the same Commodore team that had lost to Mississippi State, 71-55, last Saturday. This was the same roster that had tipped off its matchup with Tennessee riding its worst SEC start (0-5) in program history. In truth, nothing about Vanderbilt’s season suggested it might give the red-hot Vols a run for their money.
But funny things happen when a team’s back is against the wall. In Vanderbilt case, its heart showed.
“The fire and emotion from them is what we’ve been working toward and pushing towards,” Drew said. “Our guys grew up a lot tonight.”
The Commodores looked in serious trouble early on Wednesday, when Tennessee opened the game on a 15-2 run and sucked the life out of a rowdy student section at Memorial. But Vanderbilt stormed back, taking a 33-32 lead with 2:31 left in the first half on an Aaron Nesmith layup.
“I’m very proud of the way we played today,” Nesmith said. “We played as a team. Adversity hit at the very beginning of the game, and we didn’t get down.”
The Dores trailed just 38-37 at half before a back-and-forth game ensued in the second half. Vanderbilt led 76-70 with 1:22 to play, but a 6-0 Tennessee run – aided by a flagrant foul called against Clevon Brown on the Vols’ Grant Williams – helped tie things up, 76-all. Brown blocked a Williams 3-pointer on the final possession of regulation to send the matchup to overtime.
In overtime, the Commodores had no answer for Williams, who would finish with a career-high 43 points and 23-of-23 from the free-throw line. He scored 10 of Tennessee’s 12 points in the extra period.
Disappointment lingered as Vanderbilt departed the floor at Memorial Gym on Wednesday. Once again, the Commodores felt another opportunity lost, despite a valiant effort. It was a loss that ultimately dropped them to 0-6 in SEC play. “We were definitely happy for how we played and proud of our team and what we put together,” sophomore Saben Lee said, “but at the end of the day, it’s still a loss.”
But Vanderbilt’s energy was largely unexpected against the likes of Tennessee – at least, to everyone but Drew.
“Our energy is not stopping,” Drew said. “We’re moving forward. We’ve got some great people we can build around. We like where our culture’s at. That next step is getting the maturity and closing our some games.”
Tennessee’s Rick Barnes likewise went out of his way to praise Vanderbilt’s performance.
“I thought they were terrific,” Barnes said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Drew and I thought his team fought and played hard. You’ve got to have great appreciation for them. They made a lot of shots. They fought hard. I thought they played their hearts out.”
That heart is exactly why Commodores haven’t written off their season. In fact, these Dores see more of the same on the horizon.
“I feel like we’re going to keep playing the way we did today,” Nesmith said. “We’re definitely not going to let our emotions or our energy go down.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.