NASHVILLE — Accompanied by a Golden smile, a laughing Jordan McRae was the first head to pop out of the Tennessee locker room on Wednesday night.
“Oh jeez,” McRae quipped. “All y’all?”
McRae, along with Trae Golden, settled into interviews with Knoxville media at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym. Having endured plenty of questions following road losses, the two members of a three-man attack happily answered.
The Vols were leaving Nashville with a 58-46 victory against their rivals.
“When you win, everything is much better,” Golden said.
And things are getting better for Tennessee.
Wednesday night saw UT’s best offensive half of the season. It also saw an untidy second half, but the Vols (13-10, 5-6 SEC) were focusing on the positives.
The final boxscore included a game-high 17 points from Stokes, 14 from McRae and 12 points from Golden.
Stokes, with 10 rebounds, and McRae, with 11, both notched double-doubles. Golden and McRae each played 39 minutes. Stokes was on the floor for a career-high 37.
More like buoyancy.
Or at least the Vols were buoyant.
“I don’t know why we haven’t been doing that all season,” said Stokes, who added five blocked shots. “I think it came from us getting stops on the defensive end, just pushing the ball up the court. Guys were just clicking.”
Golden, Stokes and McRae combined for 35 first-half points. Scrambling to get defensive stops, the Commodores chased to no avail. Stokes dunked and rebounded. McRae hit a pair of 3s. Golden made it happen inside and out, adding a 3-pointer to an array of floaters.
When the barrage was over, Tennessee stood with a 40-28 halftime lead. It was the Vols’ first 40-point first half since a Dec. 18 win over Presbyterian.
“Trae started off scoring and screaming, getting everyone going, and Jarnell was talking,” McRae said. “We were all yelling. The refs had to calm us down a couple of times.”
Vanderbilt (9-14, 3-8) calmed the Vols down in the second half. Coach Kevin Stallings flipped the switch on a swarming, trapping, press defense. After committing just two first-half turnovers, five piled up quickly for UT during the first eight minutes of the second half.
Tennessee vs Vanderbilt, Feb. 13, 2013
An 8-0 Vandy run cut the lead to eight with 12:07 to go.
“We got a little careless, a little lazy, on some of those passes, as opposed to passing, faking and being aggressive,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Following a few angry timeout huddles, the Vols dug their heels in on the ’Dores.
A 6-0 run fueled by a McRae baseline jumper, a Stokes dunk and a jumper by Josh Richardson stretched the lead back to 52-38 with 9 minutes, 44 seconds left.
Well content, Martin said the Vols “made enough plays to win the game.”
Richardson finished with six points and four rebounds. Quinton Chievous, delivering a first-half spark, added UT’s five lone bench points.
Sophomore point guard Kedren Johnson, battling a shoulder injury, led Vandy with 11 points. He was Stallings’ lone player to finish in double figures.
Replacing senior forward Kenny Hall in the lineup, Golden registered his first start in nine games. Hall did not play, a decision Martin said was based on Vanderbilt’s reliance on a four-guard offense.
Golden, who was playing his second game since missing two straight with a strained hamstring, added seven rebounds and three assists.
“It’s not that I’m back,” he said, referencing season-long struggles. “I’m just playing my game, having fun.”
The Vols, now 2-7 on the road in 2012-13, will look to notch their third straight win on Saturday at home against No. 25 Kentucky. The Wildcats lost star center Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in a 69-42 loss at No. 7 Florida on Tuesday night. Noel, the nation’s leading shot blocker (4.5 per game), will miss the remainder of his freshman season.
“Now,” Golden said, “The biggest thing is just keeping this momentum going.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn