Mike Strange: One road win helps lead to another for Vols

Mike Strange
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Vanderbilt guard Kyle Fuller  passes around Tennessee guard Josh Richardson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo by Mark Humphrey

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press Vanderbilt guard Kyle Fuller passes around Tennessee guard Josh Richardson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — So 58 is the magic number.

On Jan. 29, Tennessee beat Vanderbilt 58-57 in Thompson-Boling Arena. The victory wasn't secured until the Commodores missed a layup and then a point-black put-back at the buzzer.

Two weeks later Tennessee scored 58 points again Wednesday night in Memorial Gymnasium.

This time, it was plenty.

The Vols dribbled out the final ticks before several pockets of cheering, orange-clad fans and a lot of empty seats.

Why was a 58-46 road win over the same Commodores devoid of last-possession drama?

What changed?

Let's start the explanation by flipping the calendar back three days to Columbia, S.C.

A 66-61 victory against South Carolina on Sunday got the road monkey off Tennessee's back.

It showed. A little more than 72 hours later, the Vols roared into Vandy and played their best first half since December.

"When you win a road game,'' said UT coach Cuonzo Martin, "it sets a certain level of confidence going into the next road game.

"It's kind of a sigh of relief and, 'OK, let's lock in and get the next one.' ''

Here's what confidence did for the Vols: They shot 53.3 percent in posting a 40-28 lead at half

time. That included 4-of-8 from 3-point range.

It also included — get this — only two turnovers.

"We pushed the ball,'' said Jarnell Stokes after his sixth consecutive double-double. "I think that's the way we should play.

"A lot of guys are definitely more confident. I definitely think that last game was a factor.''

Stokes, Trae Golden and Jordan McRae were brimming with confidence. They combined for 35 of UT's 40 points.

Josh Richardson accounted for Tennessee's second basket of the game. Quinton Chievous entered at the 6:46 mark and surprised everyone with a 3-pointer.

The rest was Stokes, Golden and McRae.

"To come out with the passion and energy,'' said McRae, "to get down on the floor and get the 50-50 balls, that's big for us.

"Having that road win under our belt at South Carolina, we came out with more energy than we have all year.''

Fast starts are fine, always welcome on the road and especially so in a tough venue against a rival.

But basketball is a 40-minute marathon. Sure enough, getting this job done would require more than a fast start.

"We knew,'' said Martin, "that they'd make a run.''

Come the second half, Vandy, indeed, made a run.

Now, it must be pointed out that this wasn't a vintage Vandy run. There was no John Jenkins airmailing 3-point shots to rouse the crowd. No Jeffery Taylor slashing for tough buckets.

But, still, Vandy made a mini-run, cutting a 16-point UT lead to 46-38 with 12 minutes left.

Ugly turnovers were sapping Tennessee's offense. In short, a familiar road scenario was beginning to unfold.

Except it didn't. The Vols gathered themselves and survived what would turn out to be an 18-point half that followed a 40-point half. A few big baskets, a few big rebounds, a few big stops.

Credit Vandy's lack of firepower. But also credit Tennessee's resilience.

This looked like a team that knew how to win on the road. After all, it had just won on the road.

Now it's done it again.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 3

jack4444 writes:

Get the ball to Jarnell.

wyomingvol writes:

Still painful to watch...

johnlg00 writes:

in response to wyomingvol:

Still painful to watch...

Then don't watch; nobody's forcing you. I would far rather watch an "ugly" win than a "pretty" loss.

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