Cuonzo Martin on the Vols' 68-61 win over Vanderbilt
Tennessee clinched a first-round bye in the SEC tournament, beating Vanderbilt in an emotionally charged rivalry game Saturday afternoon.
The Vols (18-13, 10-6 SEC) disposed of the Commodores (21-10, 10-6) by a 68-61 count to position themselves for a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the upcoming SEC men's basketball tournament.
If No. 1 Kentucky wins at No. 16 Florida at noon today, UT gets the No. 2 seed. A win by the Gators drops Tennessee to third heading into the league tournament, which runs Thursday through next Sunday in New Orleans.
"We played hard and competed against a very talented team," said Vols coach Cuonzo Martin, who saw Vanderbilt hand UT a 65-47 defeat in the teams' first meeting on Jan. 24 in Nashville. "Tonight, our guys were ready to play."
Fifth-year wing Cameron Tatum celebrated his 18-point Senior Day performance before the sold-out crowd of 22,172 at Thompson-Boling Arena by kneeling down and kissing the Tennessee logo at center court after time expired.
"That was really my last (regular-season home) game," Tatum said. "(The kiss) was spontaneous ... it was an incredible feeling."
It was UT's fourth straight win and eighth in the past nine games.
Sophomore point guard Trae Golden said it was appropriate Tatum provided the finishing kick against Vanderbilt, which has now lost 12 of its 13 regular-season finales under coach Kevin Stallings.
"There was a lot of emotion today, with it being Cam and Renaldo's (Woolridge) last (regular-season) game," said Golden, who had 17 points, four assists and no turnovers.
"I went over to Cam and gave him a huge hug after the game," he said. "(Tatum's performance) was a signal; he's had so many ups and downs, and to go out the way it did, it was huge."
John Jenkins, the SEC's leading scorer averaging 20.1 points a game entering the day, led the Commodores with 18 points. But Jeffery Taylor, who averaged 17.4, was held to 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting with Tatum his primary defender.
The Vols' big men showed up en force, as well. Jeronne Maymon scored 12 points and freshman Jarnell Stokes added 11 points, a career-high 14 rebounds and a career-high five blocked shots despite playing his 28 minutes with flu-like symptoms.
"I woke up last night and my temperature was like, 106 degrees, so I called the trainer and he came over and stayed with me," Stokes said. "The adrenaline kept me going. ... Cam was one of the guys telling me I was going to play today."
UT's key run came early in the second half. The Vols were trailing 33-32 when Golden hit a pair of free throws with 18 minutes left to spark a 9-0 run that gave UT a lead it didn't relinquish.
Tatum was big during the stretch, as he followed Golden's free throws with a double-pump drive that led to a three-point play. Moments later, Tatum buried a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 41-33 at 16:20, inciting the orange-clad crowd and forcing Stallings to call timeout to regroup his senior-laden team.
The Vols led by as many as nine on two occasions, as late as the 7:24 mark when Stokes scored on a give-and-go play with Golden, making it 53-44.
The Commodores drew back within three, 56-53, with 4:14 left on a Taylor drive.
Tatum went right back at Vanderbilt, drawing fouls on the next two possessions and draining four straight free throws to extend the lead to 60-53 with 3:22 left.
The Commodores' final charge came with 47.7 seconds left when Steve Tchiengang hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 63-59.
Golden proceeded to show why he's the SEC's best free-throw shooter (85.6 percent), hitting all four of his free-throw attempts in the final 40 seconds to cap his 8-for-8 day at the line.
UT held a 30-29 lead after a physical first half of play.
Vanderbilt used a 12-1 run, fueled by three consecutive Jenkins 3-pointers, to go up 21-15 at the 8:30 mark. The Vols answered with an 13-2 flurry, capped by a Skylar McBee jumper that made it 28-23 at 2:49. Vanderbilt closed the half on a 6-2 run to tighten the game.
"We have more to prove, we remember where we were picked," said Golden, referring UT being forecast at 11th at SEC Media Day. "We're still playing with a huge chip on our shoulder."
The Vols begin their quest for an NCAA tournament at-large bid on Friday. With the No. 2 seed, UT will play the winner of Thursday's Ole Miss-Auburn game. With the No. 3 seed, the Vols will play at 10 p.m. on Friday against the Mississippi State-Georgia winner.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32