Eight Games, Pt. 6: Bruised Orange

The Game

KenPom’s numbers gave Vanderbilt a 77% chance of winning this little-watched (outside of the state of Tennessee) fixture at 7 PM Eastern in Bridgestone Arena on a March Thursday. (This roughly converts to Vanderbilt being a 7-point favorite.) Despite Tennessee’s road win a month earlier, Vanderbilt did indeed come to Knoxville and beat Tennessee by eight a couple of weeks prior to this one.

At the point of arrival in Nashville, Tennessee’s season was essentially considered done. 12-5 had turned into 15-15, and the initial excitement over the Tyndall hire had worn off. Tyndall appeared to be a legitimately good in-game coach – I still hear fondly about his out-of-bounds plays and his defensive philosophy – but it was all going to be a moot point if the NCAA had their way.

Anyway, the game itself. It starts…as most everyone had expected. Vandy starts with a 5-0 run that turns into a 10-4 lead. Our old pal Riley LaChance is here, and he hits his first three-point attempt of the game to improve to a 40.3% hit rate from deep in his freshman year. Not bad.

Tennessee hangs around for a while, though, and eventually, Devon Baulkman and Derek Reese – two players who even I would struggle to have a ton of visual memories of – turn this consistent deficit into an 18-16 Tennessee lead.

In the moment, it seems like Tennessee might just have enough pride left in them to give Vanderbilt a painful end to their regular season. Then Kevin Stallings commands the Commodores to wake up, and they do. That 18-16 lead is erased quickly by an 11-0 Vanderbilt run that sees Tennessee go scoreless on seven straight possessions.

Vanderbilt consistently keeps the lead in a 6-10 point zone for the remainder of the first half, peaking with a Damian Jones dunk with 2:04 remaining to give them a 36-25 advantage. Tennessee, to be frank, looks really tired and dried out offensively. There’s not much working on either end.

Tennessee, at this point of the game, looks and feels like a team that just wants their season to end. Who could blame them? It’s been an exhausting four-month season that’s felt like four seasons’ worth of controversy and upheaval in one. The Volunteers do recover with a Hubbs three late in the half to get to 38-32, Vanderbilt at halftime, but it seems like mild window dressing on what’s been a dominant Vanderbilt effort over the last ten minutes of play.

When the second half starts, Tennessee fails to get out of the locker room on time. Vanderbilt scores the first six points, holds a 44-32 lead, and extends that as far out as 13 points. Belatedly, though, Tennessee begins to figure their way out of this mess. Call it the final rush of a dying ember if you must. Down 47-34, Tennessee rips off an 11-0 run. Well, more accurately, Josh Richardson rips off a 9-0 run with two points of help from his teammates.

As the only senior on the Tennessee roster, this holds the potential of being Richardson’s final game in a Tennessee uniform. It took him until his senior year to finally break into a starring role after serving as a quality role player for three seasons, but by 2014-15, he was one of the best players in the SEC not on Kentucky’s 38-1 roster. Prior to Richardson’s 9-0 run, he’d scored just nine points in this game. It’s his fight that allows Tennessee to stay alive.

Well, temporarily, anyway. Coming out of a TV timeout, Wade Baldwin nails a three. Richardson makes another jumper a minute later, but Baldwin begins to find openings for his guys in transition, and Tennessee just isn’t able to keep up. With seven minutes left in the season, the score is Vanderbilt 59, Tennessee 47.

At this point in time, KenPom’s numbers say that Vanderbilt has a 98.1% chance of holding onto this win. You can feel it, too. Tennessee seems unenergized and exhausted as they head to the bench for the next-to-last media timeout. Everyone, having sat through one of the most excruciating seasons anyone in an orange uniform will ever experience, is ready to go home. Everyone except for Josh Richardson.

“I just said that we were playing like we didn’t want to be here, like we didn’t know how to play basketball. . . .We were going to be on our way home if we didn’t turn it around.

I think we picked it up right after that timeout.”

After the timeout ends, Matthew Fisher-Davis misses a well-guarded three. Richardson rips down the rebound. Eight seconds later, Robert Hubbs hits a three of his own.

Shelton Mitchell misses a three on the other end for Vanderbilt, but Damian Jones gets a chance at a tip-in…and misses. Hubbs rebounds, goes down on the other end, and misses his three-point attempt. This time, though, Reese recovers the offensive rebound. The ball finds Kevin Punter, Tennessee’s second banana. He calmly pulls up, knocks it down, and just like that, Tennessee has cut the deficit to six.

Damian Jones immediately turns it over, but Tennessee doesn’t capitalize. Then Fisher-Davis misses a three with a Derek Reese rebound.

I want to stop what we’re doing here to tell a story. It is partially based on trespassing, and I apologize to the University of Tennessee/Donnie Tyndall/whatever other parties are involved if they take offense. During the summers of 2013 and 2014, my friend group and I would head to Pratt Pavilion late at night to get in a couple of pickup games and use whatever tools they had lying around. These exhibitions never began earlier than, say, 9 PM Eastern; we had a fear that, by going earlier, our odds of being caught would increase. (Thinking back on this, it’s sort of stunning we never did get caught.)

For two summers, this was our main stage to play on. Along the way, we ended up playing with some odds-and-ends characters from both Tennessee men’s basketball (a couple of walk-ons, if I remember accurately) and Tennessee women’s basketball (four-year starter Draya Carter, now an SEC Network analyst, was the highlight). One night in 2014, we got there and noticed a player going through a one-on-one workout with what looked to be his personal trainer. This player attempted at least 50 threes while we watched and warmed up, and I do not remember him hitting more than ten.

This player was Derek Reese. Reese was one of Cuonzo Martin’s first commits and became known less for his play than as a recruit that picked Tennessee over such luminaries as Georgia Southern and James Madison. Tennessee was the only school to offer him among the Big Six. He became an irregular starter over his final two years at Tennessee, bouncing in and out of the main lineup while providing quality rebounding services and not a lot more. He was a perfectly fine seventh man, or something like that.

Reese was a better shooter than that one random night at Pratt Pavilion showed. (Probably because of people like myself, the path to accessing Pratt that we had in summer 2014 has now been eliminated by way of multiple access codes I do not know. Sorry to all current Tennessee students – we blew it.) Four times in the 2014-15 season, his best from a minutes and shooting perspective, Reese made multiple threes in a game.

Two of those four games were against Vanderbilt.

The improbable was becoming probable yet again. Vanderbilt couldn’t hit anything; a Riley LaChance layup to make it 61-59, Vandy with three minutes left finally broke Tennessee’s run. What was apparent, however, was that Richardson’s furious rant on the sideline really had woken the team up. Richardson responded with a jumper, and after Reese forced a turnover, Hubbs put Tennessee on top with 2:14 to go.

This was the final made field goal by either team in this game, because a game between the 7th- and 10th-best SEC teams in a year where only five SEC teams made the field of 68 is not exactly of the highest quality. For reasons best left unexplained, a lid was firmly placed on Vanderbilt’s basket in the final seven minutes. They missed nine of their final ten shot attempts, and their fifth turnover in the final 5:15 – a Shelton Mitchell turnover on a possession Vanderbilt could have cut the deficit to three or even two – sealed the deal.

Tennessee 67, Vanderbilt 61. For the second time in five weeks, Tennessee had overcome impossible odds to shred Vanderbilt’s dreams under the Nashville lights.

NEXT PAGE: That’s the way that the world goes ’round

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s