NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee senior guard Josh Richardson said hundreds of words to the media in various platforms after Thursday night’s improbable come-from-behind win over Vanderbilt in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
But he really summarized it all in one word, posted on his Twitter account after the game.
— Josuélito (@J_Rich1) March 13, 2015
A quick recent history lesson if you haven’t followed what’s been a heated in-state rivalry between Tennessee and Vandy this season:
Tennessee won a stunner at Memorial Gym on Feb. 12 when the Vols stormed back from five points down in the final 15 seconds to force overtime – where they would pull away from the Commodores late to win the initial matchup of the year. After the game, Richardson had some fairly innocuous comments that aptly described what unfolded.
“I just feel like we out-toughed them a little bit tonight,” Richardson told reporters in Nashville after being asked if the Vols “stole” one in Nashville on Feb. 12. “I think Vandy did a good job of attacking us the whole game and being tough, but I think we were a little tougher tonight.”
Vanderbilt guard Wade Baldwin didn’t take that well, firing back before the rematch later in February that Richardson “punked” Vanderbilt to the media and that he planned to come after him, the team and UT fans in general in Knoxville. Baldwin and his teammates backed that talk up to an extent on Feb. 26, hitting a barrage of second-half shots in a 73-65 win. Baldwin let UT players hear about it too, jawing in their faces after the final buzzer sounded, sparking a separate incident between him and his own coach, Kevin Stallings.
That all set up a March Madness edition grudge match on Thursday night at Bridgestone Arena.
And just like the first time the Vols played Vanderbilt in Nashville, it seemed certain that the Commodores were going to get the win at points in the second half. Trailing by 13 points with 16 minutes remaining and with foul trouble mounting on an already thin roster, the Vols needed to show that same toughness that Richardson initially spoke about.
Richardson, the do-it-all senior who has seen a little bit of everything in his time in Knoxville, challenged the Vols to step up at that point.
“I just said that we were playing like we didn’t want to be here – like we didn’t know how to play basketball,” Richardson said, explaining his message to the team in the huddle midway through the second half. “I told them we were going to be on our way home if we didn’t turn it around. I think we definitely picked it up right after that timeout.”
That might be an understatement. The Vols finished the game on a 20-2 run and with an entirely different – and tougher – mentality.
“I think that today when we were settling or when we were kind of letting Vanderbilt be the aggressor in the first half, I think that’s when they were capitalizing off our mistakes,” Richardson said. “In the second half, when we stopped thinking and just started playing and attacking, that’s when the game turned.”
“Well, I do think our mentality was such that we wanted to drive the ball,” added Tyndall. “It’s more difficult or challenging really when teams go zone and they probably played about half of the game in zone. They actually went to a box and one or diamond and one late in the second half. So you don’t always get the same driving angles versus zone as you do against man to man. But I do think even against the zone, we didn’t settle.
“We tried to drive the ball and get to the paint. Then that’s when we were able to get some kick out threes to Robert and Kevin. We were fortunate, but I do think the mentality was right to drive the ball and stay aggressive.”
While a huge assist must be credited to players like Devon Baulkman (12 points) and Robert Hubbs (16) for helping shoulder the load, make no mistake, Tennessee doesn’t win that game without Richardson’s toughness and mentality. Tennessee is playing for its postseason life in Nashville and was on the verge of heading back to Knoxville to be done for the year.
Richardson finished with 22 points (8/16 shooting), six rebounds, three steals and two assists – helping on both ends of the floor as the Vols chipped away at and eventually salted away the come-from-behind win.
“Josh said point-blank that this wasn’t going to be his last game,” Tyndall said. “Josh has been amazing all year long. He’s a tough kid. He’s a great kid. He’s a resilient guy. When things don’t go his way, he doesn’t hang his head and pout. Our team sees that. They feed off his leadership. He was fantastic tonight.”
He didn’t need to get in Baldwin’s face after the game to let him know about it. Tennessee, after all, had a celebration to get to and a quick turnaround before its quarterfinal matchup against Arkansas on Friday night (7 pm ET, SEC Network).
One word summed it all up, and Vanderbilt saw it first-hand: Tough.