NASHVILLE — On the back of Vanderbilt's warm-up shirts as they prepared to face visiting Tennessee Wednesday night were printed two words: Our State.
And, no, they didn't borrow them from VU's football team.
But a little over two hours later -- thanks to VU seniors Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller -- they held off the Vols as well as the Commodores football team has the past two years, knocking off the visitors, 64-60, inside Memorial Gym to snap a two-game losing streak to their in-state rival.
"They gave [the shirts] to us before the game," said Odom, who led the Vanderbilt assault with a game-high 26 points, including a pair of free throws with 3.4 seconds to play to ice the win. "It's part of the rivalry, I guess."
The Commodores improved to 13-8 on the season and 5-4 in the Southeastern Conference. UT fell to 14-8 overall and 5-4 in league play.
Yet the Volunteer State didn't absolutely become Vandy's state until Odom's free throws, which followed a crucial non-call when UT's Josh Richardson was stripped of the ball while driving for what would have been the tying basket.
"There was contact," said losing coach Cuonzo Martin, who has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in either of his first two seasons and is clearly back on the bubble after this loss. "I thought it was one of [Josh's] best drives. We just didn't get the call."
They also didn't bring much energy in the opening half, falling behind 36-26 at intermission despite Fuller being so sick with a stomach bug that he threw up during an early timeout, yet somehow finished with 12 points in 38 minutes.
"We came out a little flat," said UT senior Jordan McRae, who led the Vols with 16 points, including 10 in the final half.
In one of the oddest statistics you'll ever see, Tennessee out-rebounded Vanderbilt 41-26 yet was outscored in the paint, 34-22.
"We did a great job of rebounding," Martin said. "We just couldn't get shots to fall."
And with 4:16 to play, the Commodores clinging to a 57-54 lead, VU freshman center Damian Jones got the biggest shot of the night to fall, slamming home an alley-oop dunk off a pass from James Siakam that appeared so high it looked as if it might land a mile or two away at LP Field.
"In my whole life, I've never seen anything like that, and I've been playing basketball 22 years," said Odom of the shot that moved the Commodores in front 59-54.
Added Jones, "I just knew I had to jump real high if I was going to get it."
Martin certainly dressed as if he gets the history of this 92-year-old rivalry. He once more channeled his inner Ray Mears -- or Bruce Pearl -- again donning a pale orange blazer in honor of Mears, the late Big Orange coach.
Yet Vanderbilt and its Magnificent Seven scholarship players roared in front 23-15 with 8:44 to go in the opening half, eventually settling on a 10-point halftime cushion.
When the school introduced new football coach Derek Mason at intermission, the roar inside Memorial grew even louder, especially when Mason took a shot at the Vols by mentioning something about an "upside down T," an apparent dig at the Big Orange.
But there was still 20 minutes of basketball to play, 20 minutes for Tennessee to salvage a game that would certainly help its pedestrian NCAA Tournament resume should it win.
Instead, after tying matters at 53, it faded down the stretch, unable to overcome Vanderbilt's lack of depth or rebounding.
"It's impossible not to think about [the NCAA tourney]," said UT's Jarnell Stokes, who finished 11 points and 14 rebounds. "It's terrible for us."
Especially now that Vanderbilt owns the state in basketball, too. At least until the rematch in Knoxville on March 1.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...