KNOXVILLE — What started out as a laugher turned into a gut check for Tennessee.
After scoring the first 12 points of the game, the Volunteers let double-digit leads slip away in each half Tuesday and escaped with a 58-57 victory over Vanderbilt only after the Commodores missed a couple of potential game-winning shots in the final seconds.
“A win is a win, but we didn’t win the way we wanted to,” said Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, who led the Vols with 19 points and 11 rebounds. “We still left a lot of things on the board.”
Vanderbilt had a chance to win the game after Stokes and Jordan McRae missed the front end of 1-and-1 opportunities in the final minute for UT. Vanderbilt’s Kedren Johnson drove to the basket in the closing seconds, but his shot didn’t go down. Kevin Bright grabbed the offensive board but missed a putback attempt.
“I thought mine was going in, and I thought his was going in, too,” Johnson said.
Stokes recorded his third double-double in his last four games, and Tennessee earned its second consecutive one-point victory. The Vols beat Alabama 54-53 on Saturday.
Skylar McBee added 10 points for Tennessee (11-8, 3-4 Southeastern Conference). Johnson led Vanderbilt (8-11, 2-5) with 14 points, all in the second half. Vanderbilt’s Josh Henderson matched a career high with 13 points.
The game shaped up as a matchup between Tennessee’s inside strength and Vanderbilt’s 3-point attack. But it started out as an utter mismatch.
Stokes spent the first five minutes of the game abusing a Vanderbilt team with the SEC’s worst rebound margin. Stokes, who was coming off an 18-rebound performance against Alabama, controlled both ends of the floor as the Vols took an early 12-0 lead.
As a 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore, Stokes was 55 pounds heavier than anyone in Vanderbilt’s starting lineup. He used his brute strength to dominate the Commodores in the early going.
Stokes scored or assisted on every Tennessee basket while the Vols built their 12-0 lead. He had seven points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal in the first five minutes of the game. At that point, it seemed the Vols were on their way to a blowout victory.
“As a team, I feel like we just didn’t stay on the pedal and keep pushing,” Stokes said. “We didn’t stay aggressive.”
The Commodores didn’t make a basket in the first eight minutes and eventually fell behind 19-5. Vanderbilt was coming off an 81-59 loss at Missouri and seemed on the verge of a similar result.
Coach Kevin Stallings resisted the temptation to call a timeout early and instead wanted to see how the young Commodores would respond.
“Sometimes your team just needs to learn how to do things on their own,” Stallings said. “Our objective right now is to grow this team up. We’ve got to grow them up. Sometimes you have to make long-term decisions to help them grow up, just like you do when you’re raising children.”
The plan worked.
Vanderbilt gradually chipped away at the lead and finally slowed down Stokes when Henderson came off the bench to guard him. Henderson entered the game averaging just 13.2 minutes and 2.7 points in SEC competition, but the 6-11 center played 26 minutes Tuesday and helped the Commodores rally.
They went on an 18-3 run and turned a 19-5 deficit into a 23-22 lead on Kyle Fuller’s three-point play with 2:36 left in the half. Tennessee regained the lead 34 seconds later on a Stokes putback and led 27-23 at halftime.
“I haven’t been playing up to my potential, I feel like,” Henderson said. “Even in practice, I wasn’t giving my best efforts. Tonight I was trying to get in there and do my best. Coach definitely sent me a message when he put me on scout team the last two practices.”
Tennessee again built a double-digit lead early in the second half, only to have Vanderbilt rally.
Johnson played just six minutes and didn’t score in the first half after picking up two early fouls, but he came up big in the second half. Johnson had plenty of success driving to the basket and sparked an 11-0 run that culminated with Sheldon Jeter’s 3-pointer, which tied the score at 52 with six minutes left.
Stokes put Tennessee back ahead for good by making a three-point play with 4:14 left after receiving a pass from walk-on guard Brandon Lopez, who hadn’t played at all in the Vols’ last five games. Lopez was pressed into duty after Trae Golden sustained a hamstring injury late in the first half.
“I wasn’t really nervous coming in,” Lopez said. “I always pray before the game and everything, so that just releases me and calms me down. I just go in there and just help out where I can and just play my game.”
A pair of McRae free throws extended Tennessee’s lead to 57-52 with 3:55 left, but the Commodores battled back again and eventually made it a one-point game when James Siakam got a putback off a missed free throw from Johnson with 29 seconds left. Tennessee’s free-throw woes gave Vanderbilt a chance to complete its improbable comeback; the Vols went 1-of-4 from the line in the final minute.
For the second straight game, a Tennessee opponent had a chance to steal the win in the final seconds.
But once again, the Vols survived.