‘Unbelievable night’: Lawrence, Stackhouse lift Vanderbilt over No. 6 Vols with help of some Memorial Magic

After a tumultuous week, Vanderbilt, and Jerry Stackhouse, earned a signature win on Wednesday night over rival Tennessee.


Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt battled Tennessee on Wednesday February 8, 2023 at Memorial Gymnasium (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor

“Unbelievable night,” head coach Jerry Stackhouse said after his team’s monumental win over Tennessee on Feb. 8. “We finally experienced the Memorial Magic we were looking for.”

Wednesday night’s 66-65 buzzer-beater over the No. 6 Tennessee Volunteers marked a lot of “finallys” for Stackhouse and Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball. 

Finally, a win over them. The first in the last 11 tries, and the first of the Stackhouse era. The first since 2017, and the first at home since 2016. 

Finally, a signature win. The first win over a top-10-ranked opponent since 2016. The first of the Stackhouse era, and the best since the team’s rally over Arkansas in January. 

And, as Stackhouse said, finally, some Memorial Magic. 

For a program that has featured as many bad breaks — both figuratively and literally, when you consider the number of injuries endured on West End over the past half-decade — it’s nice to rely on that Magic for a change and have that shot go in. And, about damn time, if I may add. 

Wednesday night was everything that creaky, old, nostalgic, beautiful Memorial Gymnasium is chalked up to be. 

A back-and-forth tussle between two ancient SEC rivals. Three-pointers and dunks, a couple of curious referee whistles. A raucous home crowd on the edge of their seats. 

And a Vanderbilt win in magical fashion. 

Full circle 

Eight days ago, Vanderbilt lost in embarrassing fashion to Alabama, drawing the ire of many critics, this one included

In the 101-44 loss, Vanderbilt’s second-leading scorer Tyrin Lawrence was benched for the entirety of the game. Stackhouse chalked the one-game suspension up to some hard-nosed discipline and an opportunity for a learning lesson. 

Vanderbilt battled Tennessee on Wednesday February 8, 2023 at Memorial Gymnasium (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila).
Vanderbilt battled Tennessee on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at Memorial Gymnasium. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

“‘Your talent and your ability, not to take anything away from the guys on our roster, is different,'” Stackhouse said of his conversation with Lawrence in the Alabama aftermath. “I think he has the potential to play at the next level.”

Credit Stackhouse for whatever else transpired in that conversation – and out of that suspension — as Lawrence has turned in two of his best games of the season since last Tuesday. Against Tennessee, Stackhouse’s faith was rewarded in the ultimate way as Lawrence drained the game-winning buzzer-beater to down the Volunteers. 

“It felt great,” Lawrence said about the buzzer-beater. “That’s stuff we dream about as kids — in the backyard, counting down from 3, 2, 1. Glad I was able to hit a game-winner; it’s something I’ll never forget.”

But the junior was a pest in the side of Tennessee coach Rick Barnes’s side all evening, even before the final shot. 

Lawrence racked up a game-high 19 points in the 66-65 win, adding four rebounds, an assist, a steal and the game-winner, of course, to his stat ledger. The Monticello, Georgia, native has been Vanderbilt’s most improved player this season and continues to ascend with each game. Look no further than the game log to see Lawrence’s rapid improvement: The junior’s field goal, three-point and free throw percentages are all improved from a year ago. According to KenPom, his offensive rating has jumped from 88.8 last season to 108.7 this season. All of this on a far greater usage rate than ever before. 

Put simply: Lawrence has been more effective and efficient than ever, lately. His ability to attack defenses downhill to get momentum toward the rim, coupled with his newfound capacity to punish them from deep has made him an elite offensive weapon. That Stackhouse was able to coax the best out of his burgeoning star after a career-low speaks volumes to the fourth-year coach’s penchant for development.  

“There was a lot made about Tyrin and what didn’t happen to him a week or so in Alabama,” Stackhouse said after the win. “And now, look at him. That’s what happens when you continue to trust and believe and develop not only basketball players — but also young men that we can be proud of as well.”

Getting the Vols

“For me, it means a lot,” senior Jordan Wright said on the win over Tennessee. “It’s one of the teams we haven’t beaten — yet. Especially to beat them in a gym like this, for Tyrin to hit a shot like that, it’s unbelievable. 

Vanderbilt battled Tennessee on Wednesday February 8, 2023 at Memorial Gymnasium (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila).
Vanderbilt battled Tennessee on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at Memorial Gymnasium (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

Yes, the victory was momentous for Vanderbilt in terms of beating a highly-ranked, quadrant 1 opponent on their home floor. But to finally get over the hump against the rival Volunteers — for the first time in seven tries in the Stackhouse era — adds a whole extra layer of satisfaction to the win. 

“Coach [Rick] Barnes came over there and was just like ‘man, I’m super proud of you,’” Stackhouse said after his team’s win. “Those words mean a lot because I respect that guy so much – he’s about the right things, his team plays the right way, and they play at a high level.” 

This edition of Barnes’s Tennessee team has been one of the very best in the country, sporting the No. 1 defense in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency coming into the contest according to KenPom. The Volunteers have marquee non-conference wins over Kansas and Texas and were 8-2 in the conference prior to Wednesday night. Aside from some mishaps in March, they have been a standard of excellence in the SEC under Barnes as far as men’s basketball programs go. 

Against Vanderbilt, the Vols brought their A-game and still fell short. Despite struggling on the offensive end this season, Tennessee shot 46.7% from the field and 36.8% from deep, led by 14 points from Santiago Vescovi. Barnes’s crew threw punch after punch until they were all out of all haymakers while Lawrence and Vanderbilt stood tall on Wednesday night. 

Resume reload 

I wrote just over three weeks ago that Vanderbilt’s win over then-No. 14 Arkansas was the best of the Stackhouse era, per KenPom. That “record” was shattered in the Commodores 66-65 over analytics-darling Tennessee, which came into the contest ranked No. 6 in the country per KenPom. 

Vanderbilt battled Tennessee on Wednesday February 8, 2023 at Memorial Gymnasium (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila).
Vanderbilt battled Tennessee on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, at Memorial Gymnasium (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

In addition to earning Vanderbilt their second quad 1 win of the season, the victory of Tennessee brought the Commodores back to .500 on the season and allowed space for the possibility to dream about a path to the NCAA Tournament once again. With the win, Vanderbilt moved from No. 100 to No. 95 on KenPom and up one spot in the NET to No. 106. 

While Vanderbilt’s recently improved form is certainly encouraging, there is still much work to be done to patch up the Commodores’ shabby resume. As I said last week, Vanderbilt has margin for one, maybe two losses left on its schedule. The additional quad 1 win probably boosts that number closer to two, but still, the Commdores have slim room for slip-ups if they want to be playing postseason ball. 

“It’s a great opportunity for us right now, just to believe and do something special,” Stackhouse said after the win. “A win like this could spur us on — now we gotta validate it.” 

That opportunity will start this weekend with a road trip to Gainesville to face the Florida Gators, ranked No. 44, per KenPom. After that, a slew of similar opponents populate Vanderbilt’s schedule — giving the Commodores chances at quality wins, but not ones that should be necessarily as difficult to come by as others that they have already faced. 

After facing four of the top six teams in the SEC, including front-runners Alabama and Tennessee twice apiece, Vanderbilt will get South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State in addition to two games against the Gators. The toughest tests will come against Auburn and on the road at Kentucky. If the Commodores can navigate their way to four or five wins in that stretch, March could become much more interesting.