Tennessee shoots down Commodores, 87-75

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Tennessee shoots down Commodores, 87-75

Luke Kornet (3) as Vanderbilt lost to rival Tennessee 87-75 at Memorial Gym January 14, 2017. (Ziyi Liu)

Luke Kornet (3) as Vanderbilt lost to rival Tennessee 87-75 at Memorial Gym January 14, 2017. (Ziyi Liu)

Ziyi Liu

Luke Kornet (3) as Vanderbilt lost to rival Tennessee 87-75 at Memorial Gym January 14, 2017. (Ziyi Liu)

Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Luke Kornet (3) as Vanderbilt lost to rival Tennessee 87-75 at Memorial Gym January 14, 2017. (Ziyi Liu)

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

Over the years, Vanderbilt and Tennessee have provided the college basketball world with some high-profile collisions on the Memorial Gym hardwood.

With both teams entering 2017’s matchup in Nashville at 8-8 overall, Saturday night’s clash wasn’t memorable for its consequences for the national rankings or postseason conversation. But the Volunteers’ shot-making and the Commodores’ lack of composure cost Vanderbilt what would have been a momentum-building victory, as they fell 87-75.

“I’d be very surprised if any of [Tennessee’s] players and coaches didn’t say that’s the best game they’ve played all year,” Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said. “I thought they were excellent tonight.”

Neither team played much defense throughout the game. The undersized Volunteers hemorrhaged points in the paint, with Vanderbilt’s Jeff Roberson and Nolan Cressler leading the charge. Tennessee, on the other hand, did its most notable damage from behind the three-point line, setting up driving lanes as the Vanderbilt defense was forced to adjust.

Ultimately, however, it was Vanderbilt’s defensive effort that was just a little bit more lacking. Drew’s team collected only three blocks on the night, despite the fact that Tennessee regularly trotted out lineups with no players over 6’5”. Senior center Luke Kornet accounted for all three of those blocks, as no one else provided much resistance at the rim.

“I thought offensively we had a terrific game,” Drew said. “You look at our percentages, you look at our nine turnovers, we were even on the rebounding and so we did a lot of positive things. But it’s hard to win games when you don’t get stops on the defensive end.”

The Commodores didn’t appear to take the challenge defensively on the perimeter. Tennessee freshman guard Jordan Bone torched Vanderbilt’s Payton Willis and Riley LaChance. Bone, a 38 percent shooter coming into the game, knocked down 8-of-12 shots for a career-high 23 points. The freshman had made only one three-pointer all season before dropping in four against Vanderbilt.

“They come out and a player [Bone] who’s hit one three all year hits one in the first 10 seconds of the game,” Drew said. “They seemed just to play with a lot of confidence. They shot almost 60 percent; it’s really hard to win a game when you give up 60 percent.”

At times, Vanderbilt struggled against Tennessee’s intermittent full-court press. The more telling lack of poise, however, came from junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis in the second half. Fisher-Davis’ technical foul after he was called for an offensive foul gifted Tennessee a free two points and put the guard on the bench with three personal fouls.

Fisher-Davis would foul out of the game in only 25 minutes of action.

“I haven’t talked to Matt about [if Tennessee’s physical play got in his head],” Drew said. “I know Matt wanted to win this game really bad, he’s a competitor, he wants to win. … I’ll have to visit with him, but he’s used to physical games. I don’t think that threw him off rhythm.”

Even with Kornet playing 38 minutes, Vanderbilt never built up any momentum defensively. The Commodores struggled to string together stops and allowed a ghastly 58.6 percent from the field to go with 8-of-15 three-point shooting by the Volunteers while forcing only six turnovers. It was the worst defensive performance of the year for a team that isn’t known for its defense in the first place.

“They definitely did shoot the ball well, but we probably just gotta be a little more aggressive at making things uncomfortable for them,” Kornet said. “… I think they were a little too open for the most part, so we gotta close that space up.”

Offensively, as Drew noted, Vanderbilt was fine. It shot 53 percent from the field and made 17 free throws, getting significant contributions from much of its rotation. Kornet led the team with 18 points, while Joe Toye added 10 in one of his better games of the year. But the output wasn’t enough to match Tennessee, which compounded its superior shooting numbers with a 58-49 advantage in field-goal attempts.

“It’s uncharted waters for me,” Drew said. “My teams have been some of the best defensive teams in the country the last couple of years, and so we have to figure out different ways to get stops on defense. But when you want to win championships, when you want to win at a high level, you have to be good on the defensive end.”

The Commodores will have two days to fix some of their defensive woes before traveling to Athens, Georgia, to take on the Georgia Bulldogs at 8 p.m. central time Tuesday on ESPNU.

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