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3 Observations: Tennessee 65, Vanderbilt 61

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

Vanderbilt gave a great effort, and Tennessee made a lot of head-scratching mistakes. But in the end, the Vols did just enough to keep their winning ways going against their hapless in-state rivals.

Tennessee (15-11, 7-6 SEC) led for nearly 26 minutes of game time on Tuesday, defeating Vanderbilt (9-17, 1-12) by a score of 65-61. The game was tied at halftime, and that only happened after an in-bounds play to Jalen Johnson resulted in a quick bucket in the closing seconds to tie it at 28-all. Vandy had led by as much as five points late in the first half, and they held a four-point lead with 51 seconds to go.

But the Vols closed the gap, and after a back-and-forth start to the second half, UT finally put some distance between themselves and the Commodores.

The Vols were clinging to a one-point lead with 7:20 to go in the game, but then John Fulkerson put the team on his back, and with some help from Santiago Vescovi and Yves Pons, Tennessee roared out to a 13-point lead with 2:30 remaining.

Vanderbilt wouldn’t go away, however, and thanks to some sloppy play by the Vols, the Commodores ended up cutting the Tennessee lead down to two with just over six seconds left. But senior Jordan Bowden was intentionally fouled after getting the ball on the in-bounds, and he sank both of his free throws to make it a two possession game with five seconds left. That would be the icing on the (ugly) cake.

Freshman guard Jordan Wright more than doubled his career-high on Tuesday, pouring in 23 points for Vanderbilt on 8-of-14 shooting and making two of this three shots from three. But his career night, along with Saben Lee’s 18 points, weren’t quite enough to spur the Commodores on to victory.

Last time these two teams played, Vandy missed all 25 three-pointers they attempted. On Tuesday, the Commodores attempted 27 threes, but they made eight of them.

UT turned it over 15 times and got outscored 12-8 in second-chance points. Vandy’s bench outperformed the Vols in a big way, mostly thanks to Jordan Wright. The Commodores’ bench outscored Tennessee’s 26-9. Vandy also held the advantage in fastbreak points, outscoring the Vols there 10-3.

But the Vols won the rebounding battle, shot better overall, and got to the free throw line nine more times than Vanderbilt. And unlike against South Carolina, Tennessee made their free throws this time, connecting on 19 of their 22 shots from the line.

Here are our three biggest takeaways from the Vols’ sixth-straight win over Vanderbilt.

Better Late Than Never

Junior forward John Fulkerson had a brutal start on the offensive end of the floor on Tuesday. But finally, late in the second half, the Incredible Fulk made an appearance, and it sparked the Vols to victory.

Fulkerson was 0-for-4 from the field midway through the second half of play, totaling three points (all from the free throw line), seven rebounds, and two turnovers.

Then, Fulkerson’s offense woke up, and Tennessee began to pull away.

The 6-foot-9 forward made his next four buckets and scored eight-straight points at one point for UT, helping the Vols extend a one-point lead to a 13-point lead. Fulkerson finished the game 4-of-8 from the floor and 9-of-11 from the free throw line, tying for the team lead in scoring (17 points) and leading the team in rebounding (7). Fulkerson was also a difference-maker on defense, blocking three shots and getting a steal.

After his rough start, Fulkerson finished with the best plus/minus for Tennessee, earning a plus-18 on the night.

Bowden Loves Playing Vandy

The last time Tennessee played Vanderbilt, Jordan Bowden had one of best offensive games of the season. On Tuesday, he again had a strong game against the Vols’ in-state rival.

In the Vols’ 66-45 win in Nashville, Bowden finished with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting, going 7-of-8 from the free throw line. On Tuesday, Bowden tied Fulkerson for the team lead in points, totaling 17 on 4-of-10 shooting and going a perfect 7-of-7 from the free throw line. The senior also added five assists, four rebounds, a block, and a steal.

In his Tennessee career, Bowden has enjoyed a lot of success against the Commodores, and Tuesday’s game was no exception. In seven career contests against Vandy, Bowden has averaged 12.3 points and has shot just under 50 percent from the floor.

Continued Dominance 

While Tuesday night’s game was certainly ugly, it continued a trend for Tennessee that’s dated back to the 2016 season: Dominating Vanderbilt.

The four-point victory over the Commodores is the Vols’ sixth-straight win over Vandy, and it marks the third-straight season that Tennessee has swept their season series against their foes from Nashville. The Vols have won eight of their last nine games against the Commodores, and they’ve now won three-straight games against Vandy in Knoxville and are 73-20 all-time against Vanderbilt at home.

Unless the Vols face Vanderbilt in this year’s SEC Tournament, senior Jordan Bowden will graduate having played eight games against the Commodores and losing only once. Tennessee has gone 7-1 against Vandy in Bowden’s four years in the program. Junior Yves Pons and every Vol younger than him on the roster has never lost to Vanderbilt in their Tennessee careers.

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