Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings described himself as a “boring, stick in the mud” in the preseason.
The No. 21 Commodores, however, are proving to be a different story this season.
Vanderbilt (16-3, 5-0 SEC) took sole possession of first place in the SEC East Division with an 85-76 victory over Tennessee (15-4, 3-2) at Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night.
It’s the 14th-ranked Vols’ second consecutive conference loss, and it snapped their 10-game home-court win streak.
Jermaine Beal scored 10 of his game-high 25 points during a pivotal 23-5 run by the Commodores that stretched from the 10:41 mark until there were just under five minutes to play.
Beal capped the decisive burst with a basket inside and back-to-back 3-pointers that gave Vanderbilt a 74-60 lead and sent many in the crowd of 19,103 to the exits.
“Coach said it 100 times in practice that Beal was going to come off the screen,’’ UT point guard Bobby Maze said. “We have to do a better job paying attention to the scout; any guy can play defense, that’s just your heart.’’
J.P. Prince led the Vols offensively (22 points) and defensively (three steals), turning in what UT coach Bruce Pearl said was a “special” effort.
But it was Prince’s second technical foul of the night — called for hanging on the rim after a dunk — that Pearl said changed the momentum.
Prince and Vanderbilt’s Andre Walker had been issued double technical fouls a minute earlier after exchanging harsh words.
But Pearl didn’t sound as though he felt Prince’s technical at the 15:33 mark was as apparent.
“The technical foul on J.P.’s dunk, at that point, was a momentum shifter,’’ Pearl said. “It’s a call that can be made because he was on the rim. I’ve seen that call made, I’ve seen that call not made.’’
Beal made the ensuing free throws, pulling the Commodores to within 44-41.
Still, UT maintained the lead and appeared to be on its way to an 11th-straight home victory when Wayne Chism scored his first field goal of the game to give the Vols a 55-51 lead with 10:54 remaining.
Chism, who missed Monday’s practice with a sprained knee, collected a career-high 16 rebounds but was just 2-of-9 shooting for eight points.
When Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy split a pair of free throws the next trip down the floor, it seemed innocent enough.
There was no clue UT would go 2-of-9 shooting from the floor and 1-of-4 from the free-throw line over the next six minutes while the Commodores hit 8 of 12 from the floor during their 23-5 run.
“We’ve got to play great defense; it’s the only chance we have to win,’’ Pearl said, pointing out that opponents shot less than 40-percent during UT’s recent seven-game win streak. “We’re going to struggle some offensively; there’s not enough offensive firepower.’’
The Vols answered the Vandy run with a 9-2 burst of their own capped by Scotty Hopson’s 3-pointer at the 2:39 mark that made it 76-68.
Hopson scored 14 points, going 3-of-5 beyond the arc while the rest of the team was a combined 3-of-15 shooting from 3-point range.
But as Pearl noted, Hopson wasn’t as assertive down the stretch having sat out 10 minutes after picking up his fourth foul at the 17:55 mark.
“Scotty never got back into any kind of rhythm,’’ Pearl said. “He sat there for a long period of time...it’s hard to get yourself going.’’
But that’s what the Vols need to do before Florida (15-5, 4-2) comes to Thompson-Boling Arena for a 1 p.m. game Sunday.
“It’s frustrating, it’s tough, it’s hard on us,’’ said Maze, who had 12 points and seven assists. “Guys in the locker room are like, ‘Whoa, here we go.’ Every night in the SEC is gonna be a fight.’’