KNOXVILLE – Tennessee, a team teetering on the NCAA tournament bubble, would’ve settled for any kind of win over visiting Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon.
But just to make sure there was no doubt, the Vols put together arguably their best performance of the year in a 76-38 drubbing of the Commodores, landing both an important win and some style points in the process.
The 38-point win was the largest victory for UT over Vanderbilt in the 185-game history between the two schools located just 180 miles from each other. Vandy (15-13, 7-9 SEC) set a new low mark for points scored at Thompson-Boling Arena. It was the largest SEC win in the three-year Cuonzo Martin era. It was also UT’s fifth-largest SEC win of all time.
Any way you look at it, the Vols were dominant.
“We all came together as a team,” said point guard Antonio Barton. “It’s getting down to the crunch time. We have to make a statement here. We have to be locked in from here on out.”
“Great team effort, start to finish guys played well and defended well,” added Martin. “Shots were falling, guys played at a high level. At every position I thought guys did their job.”
It was a performance that can be compared to some of the Vols’ best overall efforts this season, among them, Tennessee’s wins over Virginia (87-52), LSU (68-50), Georgia (67-48), Xavier (64-49) Ole Miss (86-70) and Alabama (76-59).
"I think one of them,” Martin said of where the Vandy win ranks. “Virginia was a good game. I thought we played well against Ole Miss. I thought we played well at Alabama – just consistency. Sometimes it's unfortunate for young guys. They base their results and productivity on how many points they scored and their production offensively.
“They don't understand the value of good defense. It can take you a long way. You look at the best teams in the country, they defend at a high level consistently whether shots are falling or not."
The Vols (18-11, 9-7 SEC) were nearly perfect on both ends of the floor in this one, shooting 53 percent from the field and holding the Commodores to only 22 percent. Vanderbilt turned it over 14 times, leading to 23 points for Tennessee.
Barton, who has been experiencing somewhat of a late-season resurgence after losing his starting job earlier this year, led Tennessee with 21 points, connecting on 5 of 8 shots from 3-point range.
“At some point, the shots eventually have to fall for you,” Martin said. “I think it's a combination of putting the work in, but also the confidence of a basketball player. When you see them start to fall for you, your confidence goes up."
Barton matched his career high of 21 points which he previously had, ironically, against Tennessee when his former team, Memphis, played the Vols in the 2011 Maui Invitational.
"After I hit the second one I thought, 'okay it is starting to fall,'” Barton said. “I missed one and I came back and kept shooting. For me I just have to keep shooting the ball whether I miss two or three in a row. I just have to keep shooting."
Sparked by a Barton 3-pointer on the first possession, the Vols surged out to a 24-6 edge in the opening 10 minutes and never looked back.
The Commodores never got closer than 17 points after the opening onslaught by Tennessee. Vanderbilt, a team that managed to knock off the Vols 64-60 in Nashville in early February, looked outmanned and out of gas after playing with a depleted roster for most of the season.
“We were beaten at every turn,” said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings, who publically voiced support for Martin earlier this week. “They got off to a great start. We were never able to do anything to negate anything that they did. We didn't shoot it well, we didn't guard well, we just didn't play well and they played very well on both ends. Disappointing day for us to say the least."
Tennessee, meanwhile, looked to be hitting its stride and now carries a two-game winning streak into the crucial final week of the season. Barton’s night clearly led the Vols, but UT got another solid performance from Jarnell Stokes (12 points, 11 rebounds) and saw increased bench production, including a combined 21 points from Darius Thompson, Armani Moore and Derek Reese.
The Vols’ defense has been nothing short of suffocating in the last two games played in Knoxville. Tennessee has given up a combined total of just 86 points in its last two home games (Vandy, Georgia).
“The fans, the crowd, the energy,” Reese said of why the Vols are defending at a higher level in Knoxville. “On the road, we don’t come out with as much energy as we’re supposed to. It’s a big thing. When we come out with energy, its shows. That’s important. That’s the thing we need to do every time – have energy.”
While this was certainly a crucial win for the Vols, they still have two important regular-season contests against Auburn and Missouri coming up in the next week. Two wins would put UT in decent position heading into the SEC tournament. A loss in either or both would leave the Vols with a lot of work to do in Atlanta.
Tennessee must show some consistency to finish the way it needs to. The Vols haven’t won more than two straight SEC games all season. That’s the task in front of them now.
"The main focus is to let this game go,” said Barton. “We played good, but we can't carry this game on. It is over with. We just have to come in and lock in for the next game with the same intensity and same focus."
The Vols play at Auburn on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET).
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga