KNOXVILLE – With just under 20 seconds remaining, Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings called a timeout to draw up a potential game-winning play for the Commodores.
Trailing 58-57, Stallings turned to guard Kedren Johnson, his leading scorer on the season, to get the ball to the rim for a final chance. Johnson’s running layup rimmed out, two tips from guard Kevin Bright were also off the mark.
The Vols barely survived, again.
“Kedren got a really good look and Kevin got an even better one, but sometimes they don’t go in,” Stallings said. “The team executed well. I thought our team really executed the last two or three minutes of the game to give ourselves a chance to win.”
It was the second consecutive game Tennessee (11-8, 3-4 SEC) escaped by making a defensive stop on the final possession. The Vols dropped Alabama 53-52 on Saturday when forward Jarnell Stokes disrupted a game-winning shot opportunity for the Tide in the closing seconds.
“Those games take a toll on me, but it’s great to get a win like that and even more impressive to get those key stops,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We missed some free throws and gave up an offensive rebound at the free- throw line, but we did a great job down the stretch of getting some key stops.”
Powered by a strong start from Stokes, Tennessee jumped out to a 14-2 lead in the opening moments. Stokes, who finished the game with 19 points and 11 rebounds, was up to seven points and five boards in the opening five minutes of the game.
It was his third double-double in the last four contests.
Vandy (8-11, 2-5 SEC) countered his fast start by speeding up its double-team on the sophomore forward. That slowed Stokes’ pace, but he recovered to convert a three-point play to break a 52-52 tie at the 4:14 mark, giving Tennessee a lead that the Commodores could never overcome, despite crucial free-throw misses from Stokes and guards Jordan McRae and Skylar McBee in the final minute.
“I think we sort of slowed the ball down, we didn’t stay aggressive like we were supposed to,” Stokes said when asked about losing the early lead and momentum. “They also hit some big shots. They’re a 3-point shooting team and that’s what they did.”
Stokes was a likely hero, but some unlikely help came from reserve point guard Brandon Lopez, who appeared in his first game since the Vols played Ole Miss on Jan. 9.
Lopez played 10 crucial minutes in the second half after point guard Trae Golden limped off the court late in the sfirst half favoring his right leg and didn’t return. Martin confirmed that Golden did sustain a right hamstring injury, but didn’t have further details after the game.
Lopez, a walk-on and Knoxville native, didn’t score, but sparked Tennessee’s offense with three key assists and no turnovers down the stretch. He was also the defender on Johnson when the Vanderbilt guard drove for the potential game-winning bucket.
“The one thing about Lopez is he is not fazed by the opponent – that does not bother him,” Martin said. “He battles and he competes, but it is a credit to him because he is mentally locked in the games and he is ready to go. I was not worried about putting him into the game.”
The Vols appeared set to pull away late when they built a 52-41 lead with 8:24 remaining. Vandy quickly responded with an 11-0 run to set up what turned out to be a thrilling finish.
The Commodores were paced by 14 points from Johnson and 13 from reserve center Josh Henderson, who more than tripled his season average of 4.0 points per game.
After three games in the last six days, the Vols will take Wednesday off before beginning preparation for their trip to Arkansas on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
“I was impressed with how they competed,” Martin said of his team after its recent three-game stretch. “Especially with how the games went down from an emotional standpoint, it can take a real toll on you. I was impressed with the way the guys finished it out.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga