Dores look like dangerous tourney team after knocking off No. 1
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One team in Memorial Gym on Tuesday night looked primed and ready for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, and it wasn't the No. 1 team in the country.
And, no, we're not talking about the team of officials, either, who honked on their whistles relentlessly, all the while managing to call a staggering 53 personal fouls and three technical fouls.
To its credit, Vanderbilt never blinked, just like the Commodores didn't blink back in January when they lost their first four SEC road games in a stretch that saw them open the conference season with six of their first nine games away from home.
"A lot of people jumped off the wagon a little bit," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said Tuesday.
Well, they're back on now. Knocking off No. 1 tends to have that effect, not to mention winning seven in a row.
Three days after Tennessee ended Memphis' 47-game home winning streak and vaulted to the top of the college basketball world for the first time in school history, the No. 14 Commodores made sure the Vols' stay at the top of the polls would be a short one.
Vanderbilt -- in taking down Tennessee 72-69 in one of those electric environments that makes college basketball so much fun -- was a more efficient team, a more resilient team, a smarter team, and a team with a player who simply wasn't going to be denied.
"We lost by 20 and felt like we really got punked in Knoxville and wanted to come out and show that we're a different team," said Vanderbilt senior guard Shan Foster, who needed just 13 shots to score a game-high 32 points and answer any uprising by the Vols, who trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was leery of this game even before his club went into Memphis on Saturday and knocked off the previously unbeaten Tigers.
There's a reason the Commodores (24-4, 9-4 SEC) have won 18 straight games in this building. In fact, there might not be a team in the country that consistently elevates its play at home as much as Vanderbilt does in Memorial Gym.
So losing this game wasn't the end of the world for the Vols (25-3, 11-2 SEC). It's the way they lost it that didn't sit well with their players.
Once again, Tennessee struggled to get much of anything out of its half-court offense and was unable to get into its patented up-and-down game, shooting just 32.8 percent from the field.
Pearl called the Vols' offense "pitiful." Senior guard JaJuan Smith said they didn't play like they "deserved" to be No. 1. But most disconcerting was that they didn't play their game.
"We've got to put the fast back into the fast break," said Smith. "We're not doing that, and that's our offense. We're starting to play other teams' ball and letting them take control of the game. We've got to get back to being more aggressive and playing our ball.
"We've had games where we've been great in the half court. It's just that we have to get more consistent with it. More teams want to slow it down than ... want to run."
Smith wasn't taking anything away from Vanderbilt, either. He admitted that the Commodores played "with a nasty taste in their mouths" from the 80-60 beating they suffered in Knoxville on Jan. 17.
The Vanderbilt team that defeated No. 1 Tennessee on Tuesday night barely resembles the team that was run out of Thompson-Boling Arena. The Commodores had 22 turnovers in that first meeting. They had eight on Tuesday. Foster was 1-of-11 from 3-point range in the first game. He was 6-of-9 on Tuesday.
"I thought today was more like we're capable of playing," Foster said. "We're playing to our potential."
The Commodores were also able to weather some serious foul trouble. Freshman center A.J. Ogilvy played just 12 minutes and finished with a season-low four points. Senior guard Alex Gordon fouled out in the final minutes.
The two teams combined for 69 free-throw attempts, and the Vols were in the one-and-one with 16:03 to play in the game. They couldn't capitalize, though, as the Commodores' half-court defense was stifling.
If Vols senior guard Chris Lofton hadn't hit six 3-point bombs on his way to 25 points, Tennessee would have had trouble getting much of anything.
"I thought most of their shots were contested," Stallings said. "I think, if we go back and look at the tape, that our defense had a lot to do with that."
The other thing Vanderbilt did was make Tennessee work overtime on defense. Based on watching the tape from the Memphis-Tennessee game, Stallings said Memphis never passed the ball more than three times on any possession in the second half.
"We just felt like if we made them guard us that we had a good chance to win," Stallings said.
And whereas the Vols have been pretty good this season when it comes to finding ways to win games that are decided in the final minutes, the Commodores feel they're just as good if not better.
"We feel like we're the best team in the country in terms of winning games down the stretch," said Foster, who made another strong statement for SEC Player of the Year honors. "We've proven that time and time again, winning games that are close. When you do that over and over like we have, it gives you an edge. It gives you an air of confidence to where you play calm.
"We're more calm at the end of games than we are at the beginning of games, as crazy as that may sound."
Here's something else that probably would have sounded crazy back around the end of January when the Commodores were sitting at 2-4 in the SEC: They have a great chance to be a No. 4 seed or higher in the NCAA Tournament.
|ESPN CLASSIC: INSTANT CLASSIC|
ESPN Classic will air an INSTANT CLASSIC of the Vanderbilt upset of Tennessee TODAY (Wednesday) at 4 p.m. ET.
They have a tough game looming at Arkansas on Saturday (ESPN Full Court, 4 p.m. ET). Then they return home to face Mississippi State next Wednesday, and close the regular season at Alabama on March 8.
But you get the feeling that Vanderbilt is starting to believe and starting to win games in different ways. The next step for the Dores is proving they can do it away from the comfort of Memorial Gym, where they've now beaten the past four No. 1-ranked teams that have come here.
Tennessee was the second No. 1 team in as many years to succumb to Memorial Magic. Florida went down in flames here last year.
"The energy here is just amazing," Foster marveled.
Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com.
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