The Vols flipped the script in one of college basketball’s most unique settings, a venue that has been home to countless instances of Vanderbilt figuring out ways to beat opponents – something it had done to Tennessee 53 times in the past.
And No. 54 was all but done. Every telltale sign was there.
The Commodores finally found some breathing room in a game that featured 15 lead changes and neither team gaining more than a two-possession edge. Up five with 15 seconds remaining, the Vanderbilt student section, with a black and gold state of Tennessee flag waving in front, started a relieved, mocking, “It’s great to be a Tennessee Vol” chant. Even some UT fans, no doubt wanting to avoid the final sights from what would’ve been UT’s fifth loss in six games, headed for the exits at this point.
But the Vols, thriving on the doubt and adversity that they’ve become so accustomed to this this season, weren’t done. With the mocking chant ringing through Memorial Gymnasium, Kevin Punter calmly nailed a 3-pointer with 11 seconds to get it back to 65-63. The Vols did their part to get back in it.
Senior guard Josh Richardson, who has seen it all at Tennessee, said the team never lost hope despite the long odds against them in that situation. After responding from perhaps his worst game as a Vol at Georgia on Saturday, Richardson, who stuffed the stat sheet with 27 points, four assists, seven rebounds and a pair of steals, knew he had to help the team find a way to bridge the late deficit.
“Just know we have to get a couple of buckets and stops,” he said. “Play good defense and get a few stops. I think we did a great job of doing that and knocking down the shots.”
And while Tennessee did its part, Vanderbilt also, unintentionally, helped the Vols along the way. In the ensuing back and forth free-throw contest, the Commodores missed two of their final four from the line in the last eight seconds. The Vols, when given the opportunity, hit both of their, ultimately setting up a final possession – approximately six seconds to cover the length of the court and try to tie or win it.
Vanderbilt, which called a timeout (UT had none) to set its defense, assumed Richardson would be the man in this situation and smothered him.
But Robert Hubbs wouldn’t be denied. He got near the rim with the clock on the verge of expiring, got the shot off his fingers with approximately one second remaining and converted, sending the game to overtime, Vandy fans into shock and even bringing some fans back from the concourse to see the remaining five minutes.
“Well the play was just sort of to come back to the ball and get open,” Hubbs said. “I think it was Kevin (Punter) who found me and I ran my hands through the ball. At the end of the half, we ran a play and I made sure that that time I just got the ball, I didn’t want to settle, and I drove it and made the play.”
Richardson scored five of nine points in overtime to help the Vols finish off their unlikely bit of magic in Nashville. Donnie Tyndall, fitted in an orange blazer for the first time to honor the legacy of former UT coach Ray Mears, acknowledged that the Vols somewhat stole one in his first trip to Memorial.
“That was like an NCAA tournament game in regards to the physicality, the environment,” he said. “Every possession was so valuable. I have a ton of respect for Coach Stallings and his team. We were fortunate. At the end of regulation, they missed a couple of free throws, which enabled us to get a chance to tie it.
“We preach all the time not to settle for jump shots, and [Hubbs] drove the ball deep to the paint on that final shot and made a tough play to force overtime. It was really one of those games that could have gone either way, and we were fortunate to make a play or more than they did in overtime.”
But regardless of how the final moments played out, Tyndall also recognized the importance of getting back in the win column for a team that had lost four of five coming into this game – especially in a rivalry game that means so much to both side. Now at 14-9 (6-5 SEC) the Vols still have a ton of work to do before any serious postseason talk can resume, but at least on this night, a team that has been undermanned and battling all season got to celebrate a win instead of explaining what could’ve been.
“It’s obviously a thrill,” Tyndall said. “I know how important this game is to our fans and our university, and certainly the young men in our locker room. It’s exciting and we play them again in two or three weeks, so we know we will get their very best shot when they come back. So we’re not going to be boastful or arrogant in any way, we are very humbled to win a close, hard-fought game.”
“It feels good,” Hubbs added. “But we have to go back and get back to work to prepare for LSU.”