On Monday, the Tennessee Volunteers received the number one ranking in the AP top-25 for the first time since February of 2008. It’s an honor that they absolutely deserved, but one that came just days before their road trip to Nashville.
This is a narrative that sounds far too familiar for Vanderbilt fans. That very February, in 2008, the #1 Tennessee Volunteers didn’t hold their crown for long. They, too, had a road game at Memorial, where they were upset in shocking fashion by the 18th ranked Vanderbilt Commodores. This year, the Vanderbilt Commodores are by no means a top-25 team, but students, fans, and players all wondered: could it possibly happen again?
Somehow, someway, it almost did. Tennessee received some generous calls from the referees, propelling them to an 88-83 win over the Commodores.
“Some of our guys grew up tonight,” Coach Drew said after the game.
He acknowledged the difficulty of this loss, mentioned the tears shed in the locker room, and limited the media’s questions to focus on the positive takeaways.
The unranked Vanderbilt Commodores, who still had not won an SEC matchup entering the night, played their hearts out.
The student section brought the energy. Roughly half the stadium wore Orange, but for the first time this year, it seemed like the Commodores may truly have a home-court advantage.
Unfortunately, their energy was met with one of the most underwhelming five minutes of Commodore basketball in recent memory.
Through five minutes of playing time, Vanderbilt seemed to have held the ball for less than thirty seconds. The only cheering that came from the student section was, in response to Admiral Schofield’s one missed shot, “airball,” whenever he touched the rock.
Vanderbilt trailed 15-2.
Coach Drew looked livid, and Vanderbilt looked helpless. After a brief timeout and pep-talk, something happened.
All of a sudden, Vanderbilt’s offense cleaned up its act.
Memorial Magic was back, as the half ended with Tennessee up just 38-37.
Once again: this is not a new story for Vanderbilt fans.
They’ve blown double digit leads in countless games this year; most notably, against a ranked opponent in Kentucky.
Would the Commodores show up for the second half, on their own home court, against the school’s biggest rival, who happens to be ranked first in the nation?
It seemed like there was a chance, barring one major setback: foul trouble. Vanderbilt had a whole lot of that, as Simi Shittu and Yanni Wetzell had both notched four fouls dangerously early.
The fouls were certainly a problem, but at least for the moment, it did not stop the Commodores.
After two straight threes from Aaron Nesmith, the game was tied with eleven minutes in regulation.
A few minutes later, Syracuse Transfer Matt Moyer, introduced himself to Memorial Gymnasium with the poster dunk of the year. In case this highlight-reel dunk needed to get any better, it gave Vanderbilt their first lead of the second half.
Vanderbilt had taken a three point lead against the #1 team in the nation.
All they had to do was hold it for five minutes.
Saben Lee, who has never been known for his three point shooting, drilled his third of the game. It took him just four shots to get there, and it awarded Vanderbilt a five point lead.
All they had to do was hold it for three and a half minutes.
The refs, however, kept things interesting.
A few questionable calls granted Tennessee the chance to crawl back into the game, and the Commodores started to panic. Simi Shittu and Saben Lee committed costly turnovers, allowing Tennessee to tie the game with 48 seconds left.
Vanderbilt responded with another costly turnover, which should have resulted in the game winning layup for Tennessee, but Aaron Nesmith’s Lebron-esque chase-down block gave the Commodores a few more seconds.
The panic continued.
The Commodores turned over the ball once more, giving Tennessee possession with two seconds left. One miss later and overtime began.
The Volunteers came out shooting; a converted and-one for Tennessee and a few bad misses by the Commodores sent Vanderbilt into a whirlwind of emotion.
Along came Aaron Nesmith, again, to tie the game from beyond the arc. The game continued in a back in forth nature until Vanderbilt hauled in a rebound with 50 seconds left, and Saben Lee was sent to the line.
Free throw woes are nothing new for the Commodores, as Lee only converted on one of two.
Vanderbilt only held a one point lead, and Tennessee responded with an and-one, securing a two point lead.
One last possession for the trailing Commodores, but again, Lee was fouled. This time, with two made shots he could redeem himself.
He only converted on one, which left Vanderbilt to intentionally foul.
Their panic turned into frustration with themselves, the referees, and the entire situation. Their panic turned into an on-court altercation after a violent intentional foul from Aaron Nesmith.
Tennessee showed no sign of slowing down. Their free throws kept falling, and in one of the most exciting games of the Bryce Drew era, Vanderbilt fell victim to Tennessee.
It was heartbreaking, but the Commodores have plenty to be proud of. They ended up losing 88-83, but their offense looked better than it has all season.
Things can only get better from here, right?
“First of all, let’s talk about Vanderbilt. they looked absolutely terrific tonight,” said Tennessee Head Coach Rick Barnes as he began his postgame press conference.