The Tennessee Volunteers took down in-state rival Vanderbilt 76-38 on Saturday, in what was the most lopsided SEC game the season. Senior guard Antonio Barton led Tennessee and was the only double-digit scorer in the entire game with 21 points.
A special pre-game ceremony for former Tennessee basketball star Dale Ellis took place in Thompson-Boling Arena, as he had his number 14 jersey lifted to the rafters. He was able to speak to the team before the game and according to star forward Jarnell Stokes, said that this team beating Vanderbilt today would mean more to him than getting his jersey retired. The Vols obviously took this speech to heart because they dominated the Commodores from the opening tip until the final buzzer.
Senior guard Antonio Barton came out on fire, hitting one of his five three-pointers on the first possession, which ended up igniting an 14-4 run. Senior guard Jordan McRae also came out confident, scoring half of Tennessee’s first 14 points. Barton scored three three-pointers before the halfway point of the first half and Tennessee continued to run away with the contest as the lead reached 17 at the 7 minute mark.
Things just got worse for Vandy as the first-half progressed and the Vols just seemed to be hitting on all cylinders. Every player who saw minutes in the first half scored, Stokes was dominating inside the paint, the team was 7-12 from three-point range, and the defense was tight and forced eight turnovers by halftime, which saw the Vols up 41-18.
Tennessee has had a reputation of letting teams back into games after a dominating first half, but Saturday was a different case. Antonio Barton started off the second half just as he had the first half, with another three-pointer, which almost seemed to foreshadow that this half would be nothing different from the first. The Vols never even gave Vandy a chance to be optimistic, even though Jordan McRae fouled out, as the lead grew to 30 and hovered around that mark until the end of the game.
This game was obviously one of, if not, the best performance of the season for the Volunteers. When Head Coach Cuonzo Martin was asked about how his team played, he said, “Vanderbilt was hard to scout but our guys did a great job focusing in practice and in film sessions. This is one of our best games we have played along with Virginia and Ole Miss.” Martin said. “We did a better job defending. We played well on Odom and made getting the ball to him hard for them.” Rod Odom scored 26 points the first time the teams played on February 5th, but on Saturday he was only able to get up 7 total shots and finish with only 4 points.
Lead scorer Antonio Barton also echoed Coach Martin’s praise of focus in preparing for this week. “What was different about this week is that our focus was locked in, at practice and in the film room.” he said. “It’s coming down to crunch time and every game counts.” Barton said, and he played like he really meant it.
Barton’s season-high scoring performance was not a surprise to his teammates, especially to Jarnell Stokes. “I said after the Ole Miss game that Barton is the ‘X-factor’ for this season.” he told reporters. “When we play pick-up, he plays like he did today, so I told him to play like it was a pick-up game.”
Tennessee is right on the bubble for making the NCAA tournament. They are going to have to win their remaining games against Auburn and Missouri if they want to make the “big dance.” If the Vols can play as they did Saturday, they have a chance to do something special in the tournament. “I can’t help but pay attention to all the NCAA tournament talk. But at this point my mindset is to stress about each game at hand and not the tournament.” Stokes said. The Vols cannot afford to slip up against Auburn or Missouri and need to have all their focus on the games that need to be played in order to reach the goal of doing well in the tournament.
Edited by Zach Dennis