NASHVILLE — Cuonzo Martin wiped the top of his head with a towel and took a swig of bottled water with 3:40 to play in the first half at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym on Wednesday night.
The Tennessee coach appeared to be sweating out another typically tight SEC basketball game. But his actions didn't fit the score.
Thanks to a couple of Jarnell Stokes free throws, the Vols had just improved their lead to 13 points — a comfortable margin for a team that hadn't won an SEC game by more than five points.
How was Martin to know they were on their way to a 58-46 victory over the Commodores? There was too much history to the contrary.
Tennessee's last three SEC victories had come by a grand total of seven points. Its last meeting with Vanderbilt was another good reason not to trust a 13-point lead.
Tennessee vs Vanderbilt, Feb. 13, 2013
The Vols opened last month's game with a 12-0 run during which Vanderbilt looked as incompetent as any team in the league. The lead vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, and UT didn't clinch a 58-57 victory until a last-second Commodores shot fell slightly off target.
There was no last-second suspense this time, just a dreadful second half in which neither team distinguished itself.
The Commodores briefly gained ground in the first five minutes of the half when three consecutive UT turnovers enabled them to cut a 12-point lead to eight. But that was as close as it got, mainly because the teams seemed determined to swap one missed shot for another.
The second-half score told you all you needed to know: Tennessee 18, Vanderbilt 18. Translation: Business as usual in a league that way too frequently fails to crack the 60-point barrier.
Better for UT to forget the second half and embrace the 40-point first half when its three best players — Stokes, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden — combined for 35 points and provided a rare reminder of what its fans might have envisioned the offense could be.
One productive half from the threesome is progress, though. Maybe the Vols can build on that and the back-to-back SEC victories, which upped their record to 13-10 overall and 5-6 in the SEC.
Stokes' performance was nothing unusual. He had 17 points and 10 rebounds for his sixth consecutive double-double.
It wasn't as though he surprised the Commodores. On one early possession, they double-teamed him before he received the ball inside. Then, he drew two more defenders as he dribbled across the lane.
But there weren't enough Vanderbilt defenders to go around as UT built a 12-point lead halftime lead. And this time, the 12-point lead held up.