Cameron Tatum helps Tennessee clinch second-place SEC finish

Cameron Tatum helps Tennessee clinch second-place SEC finish

March 4th, 2012 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli (3) goes in for a basket as Tennessee forward Dwight Miller (25) and guard Cameron Tatum (23) defend during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, March 3, 2012.

Photo by (AP Photo by Adam Brimer/Knoxville News Sentinel)

KNOXVILLE -- Cameron Tatum stood on the Thompson-Boling Arena floor soaking in the moment.

It took hardly any time for that moment to be interrupted.

First it was Trae Golden, followed by the rest of the Tennessee senior's teammates surrounding and hugging him as the remnants of an orange-clad sellout crowd cheered in approval and appreciation.

"It was a great feeling, man," Tatum said after scoring 18 points in the Volunteers' 68-61 Southeastern Conference win against Vanderbilt on Saturday. "Those guys have been so supportive of me through this whole year -- through all the ups and downs, through my struggles. I think more than anything they were so proud of me to be as aggressive as I was today.

"Those guys were just really happy and proud of me, man. I think that's what those hugs were about."

With the win, the UT (18-13, 10-6) completed an unlikely run to a potential second-place finish in the SEC. The Vols' win Saturday, coupled with Alabama's loss at Ole Miss, clinched a first-round bye in the conference tournament this week in New Orleans. If top-ranked Kentucky wins at Florida today, UT would be the second seed.

"I felt huge for Cam," said point guard Golden, who scored 17 points on just five shots with five rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers. "We were out there, I wouldn't say playing for Cam, but there was one time that I was exhausted, but I looked over at Cam and I was like, 'Forget it, I'm good, I'm going to go as hard as I can.'

"I told Cam and [senior] Renaldo [Woolridge] before the game, 'I got you. I'm going to play as hard as I can and do whatever I can to make sure we win this game.'"

Tatum certainly did his part to ensure the ending to his final home game would be a happy one. After Vanderbilt (21-10, 10-6) scored to open the second half, the 6-foot-7 wing converted a circus bank shot into a three-point play and canned a 3-point shot from the corner for a 41-33 lead.

The Commodores rallied, however, as UT went scoreless for 4:30 when Vanderbilt switched to a 2-3 zone defense. Lance Goulbourne, who scored 12 points, cut UT's lead to 44-42 with two free throws.

That's when Golden put his stamp on the game. After Jeronne Maymon's layup ended UT's drought, Golden hit a floater in the lane, then drove and passed to Tatum for a 3-pointer that gave UT a 51-42 lead and forced a Vanderbilt timeout with 7:55 to play.

"That's the growth of our team," Golden said. "Back in the day at the beginning of the season, we would have lost the game probably or lost the lead, but we stayed with it. We kept going to what was working for us."

Jarnell Stokes was working for the Vols. The freshman forward, despite battling a high fever, scored 11 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked five shots and anchored UT's toughness advantage in a physical slugfest of a game. He had seven turnovers in UT's 18-point loss in Nashville in January, but he won the battle against Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli, who fouled out in 24 minutes with just six points.

"He does all the things it takes to be a really good player," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. "It was a valuable lesson to him. I teased him a little bit the other day when he was watching film with [assistant coach Jon Harris] about Ezeli. I wasn't sure if had the Ezeli Flu or not, but he did a good job of representing. He wanted to play."

After the Commodores made it 56-53, Tatum sank four straight free throws and split a pair with 29.5 seconds left that iced the game. Defensively he helped limit Vanderbilt's duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor -- the top two scorers in the league -- to a combined 28 points on 9-of-27 shooting.

"I thought he played great as a leader," Martin said. "It's just a credit to him. It was only fitting that down the stretch of the game, he shot those free throws and knocked them in."

Tatum hopes Saturday truly was his last home game. That would likely mean the Vols' unlikely run would end with an NCAA tournament berth.

"Very badly," he said. "I know this was good, the script to go out like that. But I want to go out going in the tournament, fighting till the last till I don't have any more."