NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Madness, of the March variety, has arrived.
Entering the SEC Tournament, it appeared Vanderbilt had already punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores had won six of its past eight games and seemed to have overcome their slow start to the season.
Then Thursday happened at Bridgestone Arena. Twelfth-seeded Tennessee upset fifth-seeded Vanderbilt 67-65.
There's now a chance this loss eliminated Vanderbilt from NCAA Tournament contention in an instant. And it’s something Tennessee players relished in after the game. The same thing happened a year ago, when Tennessee defeated Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament to send the Commodores to the NIT.
"Coach (Rick Barnes) said if we win it’s going to be hard for them to get to the NCAA Tournament," sophomore guard Detrick Mostella, who led Tennessee with 18 points, said. "We feel like we owe them something. Last year, the same thing happened. It’s surprising to us, but we knew what we had to do."
The Volunteers (15-18) enjoyed double-digit leads on and off throughout the game and enjoyed a 34-22 lead at halftime. Vanderbilt (19-13), which beat Tennessee twice in the regular season, did not have much of a physical presence inside. 7-foot center Damian Jones, who was held to 12 points and 2 rebounds, was routinely fronted and moved around to prevent position.
7-foot-1 forward Luke Kornet only managed 6 points and 8 rebounds. Tennessee rotated only seven players, with its tallest being 6-7 forward Derek Reese. Reese led everyone in rebounds with 10.
"You have to be tough down there, especially with the footers," Reese said. "They’re huge. It’s being physical down there."
Tennessee will play LSU in the quarterfinals on Friday. With the Volunteers defeating Auburn and Vanderbilt in the first two rounds, it’s beginning to feel reminiscent of last season’s run from Auburn, when it reached the semifinals as a 13-seed.
To think, none of this seemed possible when Tennessee lost senior guard Kevin Punter, along with his 22.2 points per game, to a season-ending foot injury.
"When Kevin went down it took a big part of us out," Mostella said. "We felt we weren’t playing as hard when he was here. We just kept pushing, kept pushing, knowing he wasn’t going to be here for the rest of the year. It gave everyone else momentum to keep pushing and playing hard."
The fact that Tennessee is still standing and Vanderbilt will sweat out Selection Sunday is madness enough. The finish to Thursday’s second-round game was also indicative of how basketball games tend to go at this time of year.
Down by 5 with nine seconds remaining, Vanderbilt guard Matthew Fisher-Davis hit a 3 to cut Tennessee’s lead to 67-65. Vanderbilt fouled Mostella, who missed the front end of a one-and-one. No Commodores player blocked Mostella out as he got his own rebound and was fouled again.
But Mostella followed the first miss with another, giving Vanderbilt a chance to tie or win with 5 seconds remaining.
Vanderbilt guard Wade Baldwin IV went coast-to-coast and put up a layup, which was called good on the court. On replay, however, it was overturned as it was apparent Baldwin still had the ball in his hand as the buzzer sounded. Tennessee began celebrating on the court, furthering the madness that’s been established already at the SEC Tournament.
"Coach told us in the locker room that it’s going to come down to who wants it the most," Tennessee forward Armani Moore said. "I thought our guys came out and showed we wanted it."