In December, if you said the Tennessee Volunteers (18-13, 10-6) would finish second in the SEC, you’d have been called ridiculously stupid. Yet the ridiculously stupid has happened, the Vols beat Vanderbilt 68-61, and after an Alabama and Florida loss, the Vols find themselves the 2 seed in the SEC tournament with a bye.
It was a fitting end for Cam Tatum, on his senior day, he led the Vols with 18 points and made key free throws when the game still hung in the balance.
“Once again my gauge is not how many points he’s scoring,” said Cuonzo Martin. “It’s his whole floor game–rebounding, defending, getting assists, playing hard. I can also tell how when Cam is communicating out there that he is in the game. But he accepted the challenge against (Vanderbilt guard Jeffery) Taylor. He stepped to the plate and accepted the challenge.”
Tatum was one of 4 Vols to score in double digits, Maymon (12), Stokes (11), and Golden (17).
The Vols simply outmanned the Commodores on the floor. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings called the Vols “physically tougher at every spot.” At one point during the second half, the Vols led the Dores in rebounds 32-16 and outrebounded Vandy 40-30 on the day. To put it simply, the Vols were playing inspired basketball on Saturday, and that’s where the sell-out crowd made it’s impact.
“I thought it was a great, great atmosphere–22 thousand plus. Tremendous atmosphere,” said Martin. “There is maybe a handful, if that, of atmospheres I’ve been a part of. There was a lot of Orange. That’s what our guys I appreciate and that’s what they need. That gets you over the hump. You have an atmosphere like that you’ve got a chance to be special as a team.”
Freshman Jarnell Stokes, fighting flu symptoms, added 14 rebounds to his 11 points and was a dominant force inside and not only on offense. Stokes blocked 5 shots on the day.
“I just played my role and boxed out,” Stokes said. “I think I did a great job of boxing out, getting rebounds and doing stuff that does not show up on the stat sheet.”
A key play was actually a mistake by Vanderbilt. With 9 minutes left in the game, Vanderbilt foreword Lance Goulbourne missed a wide-open slam dunk that would have cut the lead to two points. Golden hit a jumper, Maymon got a steal, then Tatum hit a three and suddenly Tennessee’s lead was up to 9. Vanderbilt never recovered from the momentum swing.
The Vols were able to limit Vanderbilt stars John Jenkins (18 points) and Jeffrey Taylor (10 points), something they didn’t do in the first game.
“I had to work for my looks. The ones I did have were really tough. They did a good job,” said Jenkins
The real difference in the game came at the free throw line. Vanderbilt shot just 50% (8-16) at the line and missed their first seven attempts. Tennessee on the other hand shot 79.3# (23-29) and were nearly peerless when it mattered down the stretch.
“I think it’s very significant. I think they shot 29 free throws and we shot 16,” said Stallings. “That was due to them crashing the boards, getting themselves extra opportunities and fighting for balls. Again, they’re to be congratulated. They made their free throws, they shot free throws better, they got to the line more and they did the things you have to do to win. We didn’t.”
The Vols will have a first round bye in next weekend’s SEC Tournament in New Orleans. Tennessee will play Friday at 7:30 pm against the winner of Ole Miss and Auburn.
As Cam Tatum left the floor of Thompson Boling Arena for maybe the last time as a player, he kissed the logo at center court and said his goodbyes.
“We have to go the SEC Tournament with the same hunger and the same fight,” said Tatum. “It is a testament to how hard we fought and the ways our guys came in and practiced every day to get better. It is a beautiful thing when hard work does pay off.”