It was clear after a matter of minutes Tuesday that Vanderbilt faced one of just two possible responses to its most recent home game. Either the 22nd-ranked Commodores were going to prove they could hold a lead or they were going to build one so sizable it could not possibly be challenged.
It turned out to be the latter.
Vanderbilt (18-5, 7-2 in the SEC) scored 30 of the game’s first 40 points, and although Tennessee (18-5, 6-3) had its moments, the No. 12 Volunteers never seriously threatened. So it was that the Commodores swept the season series with a 90-71 victory before a sellout crowd of 14,316 at Memorial Gymnasium.
Vanderbilt improved to 12-0 at home this season, but this one was much easier than the previous one — a 75-72 victory over Mississippi State in which a 14-point, second-half lead was reduced to one in the final minute of play.
“The Mississippi State game was a different deal because it was a 14-point game with four minutes to play, and they pressed us and turned us over a couple times and all of a sudden the nature of the game is different,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “This game, it was not like that at four minutes.”
No, it was not.
With four minutes to go the Commodores led by 24, which was the same advantage they had with eight minutes to go and three fewer than they had with 12 minutes remaining.
In fact, they scored the first six points after the opening tip and never trailed. Not only that, but from the moment they first pushed their advantage to double digits —14-4 on a pair of Jeffery Taylor free throws 6:07 into the contest — they remained in front by 10 or more all the way to the finish.
“We knew Tennessee was a good team so they were going to end up making a run,” guard Jermaine Beal said. “But … the closest they got was (10) points in the second half. We kept pushing away from them.”
Taylor powered the early surge as he poured in 16 of his career-high 26 points before halftime. Then Beal turned back the Vols’ last legitimate attempt to rally when his 3-pointer started a 20-3 run, which made the score 66-39 with 12:38 to go. The senior guard scored eight of his 20 points in that stretch.
“We stopped their momentum there when Beal hit that 3,” Taylor said. “That was huge. … Then we just kind of put it on them from there.”
The Commodores’ point total was their highest in the series since a 90-82 victory at home back in 1992-93. More importantly, they took sole possession of second place in the SEC Eastern Division and locked up the first tiebreaker (head-to-head) against the third-place Vols, who won the division the last two years and three of the last four.
Senior J.P. Prince led four UT players in double figures with 19 points. Wayne Chism added 16.
“We set a really bad tone I thought we made a couple of good runs in the first half,” coach Bruce Pearl said. “We got it down to 11 or 13, and then to start the second half in the first three minutes I thought we got off to a great start. … Obviously we have to play better on the road if we are going to win against a conference contender.”
Vanderbilt needs only to play that well any time it has the lead.
• Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins did not play because of a stomach virus. The freshman out of Station Camp spent Monday night in a hospital receiving treatment for a stomach virus, was admitted later Tuesday and was expected to be released Wednesday at the earliest.
He is the Commodores’ fourth-leading scorer at 10.4 points per game and in 3-point percentage (45.7).
“He started vomiting (Monday) night at about midnight,” Stallings said. “… At 8:30 or 9 (a.m. Tuesday) I thought he was going to play. Then about 12:30 or 1 p.m. I found out he was going to be admitted and kept overnight.
“We missed John and wished he could have been there with us.”
• VU made 37 of 43 free throws (86 percent). It was the most made and attempted in Stallings’ 11 seasons as coach.
“Obviously you want to make free throws and you work hard to get to the foul line,” Stallings said. “We were stellar (Tuesday) night, obviously. That was a big factor.”
Taylor was a perfect 12-for-12, which made him the fourth Commodore ever to attempt at least 10 and make all of them in a single game. The sophomore forward never had more than nine in a game.
“We got to the line and we converted a lot,” Taylor said. “That means a lot. … Just going to the line does a lot for a team. And when you’re knocking them down, it’s a good thing.”
• Tennessee center Brian Williams played for the first time since being suspended at the start of January for an off-court incident. He sat out nine games while suspended and did not play last Saturday against South Carolina after being reinstated.
He entered this contest with 13:34 to go in the second half and finished with one rebound and two fouls in two minutes.