NASHVILLE, Tn — Olivier Nkamhoua paced back-and-forth in the bowels of Memorial Gymnasium.
Nkamhoua should have been one of the Vols’ heroes, hitting a go-ahead jumper with 50 seconds to play. After the Vols got another stop, it looked like Tennessee would pull it out again to extend its win streak over rival Vanderbilt to a series-long 12 games.
A three-point deficit late turned into a two-point lead and the Vols possessed the ball with Vanderbilt needing to foul five times to send Tennessee to the free throw line. That’s where the troubles began.
Tennessee’s Julian Phillips got wide open on a cut to the basket and had an open dunk that would have given the Vols’ a four-point lead with 12 seconds to play.
“Come on, he’s got to do that,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “I told him you don’t turn down a 100-percent shot. I mean, you’ve got to do that. He’ll learn from it. But he’s got to do that. With 18 seconds, they’ve got five fouls they’ve got to give, they’re going to have to foul. So we’ve got to go. When you get a wide-open dunk, you’ve got to give it.”
A bad decision? Sure. But one Tennessee should have still easily overcome.
Vanderbilt fouled Phillips after he passed up the dunk with 10 seconds to play, the fifth on the Commodores in the half.
Tennessee survived another scare when Barnes bailed Tyreke Key out with a timeout as the senior nearly took a five-second call.
The Vols eventually got the ball inbounded to Santiago Vescovi, one of the two players they’d want shooting crucial free throws. But Vescovi missed the front end of the bonus giving Vanderbilt another chance after taking a timeout with four seconds to play.
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Barnes has praised Jerry Stackhouse’s ability to get Vanderbilt good looks for four-years. It came to fruition as Stackhouse drew up a beauty. Vanderbilt guard Ezra Manyon found a wide open Tyrin Lawrence in the corner. The junior guard barely got the shot off, but he got the shot off, and it deftly fell through the nets to give the Commodores’ their first win over Tennessee since 2017.
The eighth-year Tennessee head coach wouldn’t say more than that it was “a defensive breakdown”. Tyreke Key called it a “team breakdown”.
Those are kind remarks not throwing the responsible party under the bus. The responsible party was Vescovi who left Lawrence all alone to try and help contest a potential Robbins shot at the rim.
“We said we’ve got to make it a tough shot at the rim,” Barnes said of the play. “But under no circumstances can we give up a three-point shot. And we did. And they made it, so give them credit for it.”
Missing the front end of the bonus to keep Vanderbilt alive is tough enough. The mental breakdown of leaving a shooter — albeit a bad one — wide open in the corner is inexcusable for a senior with an abundance of late game experience.
The three costly Tennessee mistakes led to the small Vanderbilt student section pouring onto the court and Nkamhoua pacing Memorial Gymnasium’s bowels after a gut wrenching loss.
The loss — Tennessee’s second in three games — puts the Vols at a crossroads on the season. Seasons aren’t made or broken by early February games, but the Vols are trending in the wrong direction with their schedule poised to heat up down the stretch.
Following a Saturday home matchup with Missouri, Tennessee faces No. 3 Alabama and then travels to Rupp Arena and College Station for challenging conference games.
Life isn’t going to get any easier for Tennessee and it’ll be a long bus drive back to Knoxville Wednesday night. Where the Vols go from here is the question. But there’s no question they let one get away at Vanderbilt.