NASHVILLE — For Tennessee basketball fans, the Volunteers' annual trip to Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym had gotten ugly long before freshman Yemi Makanjuola was ejected for his flagrant foul on Commodores star shooter John Jenkins with 1:25 to go Tuesday night.
"Kind of disappointing," was Vandy coach Kevin Stallings' view of Makanjuola's cheap shot in the 65-47 loss.
"He got me pretty good," said Jenkins, the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer. "Kind of clotheslined me. No hard feelings, though. In fact, he apologized to me right before we came in [to the media room]."
The Commodores have apologized to their fans more than once this season for their performances on the court, though they thankfully have been devoid of flagrant fouls on the order of the one Jenkins suffered.
Instead, a team ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, a team some (blush, blush) labeled a dark horse to reach the Final Four had lost five times in 19 games heading into UT's visit, including head-scratching home losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State before Saturday's overtime home loss to Mississippi State.
Said VU senior center Festus Ezeli -- who earned a double-technical with UT freshman Jarnell Stokes -- of that loss, "It wasn't a failure of assignments. It was a failure of effort. We didn't want that to happen again tonight."
And so they didn't. The Commodores led 9-0, 22-8, 30-10 and 40-21 in the opening half.
Said Jenkins of that domination against a Big Orange bunch that had just shocked defending national champ Connecticut three days earlier: "We came out with lots of energy, lots of passion. We hit them in the mouth [figuratively] hard to start the game, and I think that had a lot to do with the outcome. And then we didn't back down much in the second half."
This, of course, is first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin's long-term plan. He wants the Vols to be the most physical team in the room. Then again, Stallings wants the same for his team, which is understandable since both men worship at the stylistic feet of their coach at Purdue, Gene Keady.
A story to illustrate that at least this particular VU team is further along in its quest for complete physical domination than UT: Burly Vols forward Jaronne Maymon -- all 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds of him -- said he blacked out momentarily when he ran into Ezeli's upper chest.
"It was real physical, probably the most physical game I've played in all year," said Maymon, who with 15 points was the only Vol to score in double figures. "I guess a couple of the guys got rattled. It was just hard for us all around."
A second view, this one from Vanderbilt senior forward Jeffery Taylor, who led all scorers with 23 points: "It's a rivalry game. Their guys don't like us; we don't like them."
And, clearly, after blowing a 17-point lead at Knoxville a year ago in one loss to UT and an 11-point lead at home in a second defeat, Vanderbilt (15-5, 5-1) was determined to wash away far more than Saturday's loss to MSU.
"We felt we let those games get away last year," Stallings said. "So this game meant a lot."
But does it mean that Vanderbilt is about to play every game the way it did against UT, the way it has played far more times than not since the 6-11 Ezeli returned from knee troubles in late December?
After all, the Commodores do lead the SEC in conference games in scoring defense (57 papg), field-goal-percentage defense (.361), 3-point shooting (47 percent), 3-pointers made per game (10.1) and assists (13.6).
"We're going to make defensive toughness our constant," Taylor said, "because we've noticed that when it gets to tournament time, the best defensive team is usually the last one standing."
The Commodores certainly were the last one standing on Tuesday, even if Jenkins was rudely knocked to the floor by Makanjuola.
"Tennessee played hard," Taylor said, "but so did we."
If they keep playing that way, they just might win their first SEC regular-season title since 1993.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...