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Mark Wiedmer
NASHVILLE — The words ran along the bottom of the television screen in ESPN's news ticker early Thursday evening. With Tennessee's 67-65 win over Vanderbilt on the first full day of the Southeastern Conference tournament not 30 minutes old, the news item said the Commodores were still projected to be among the last four teams in the NCAA tournament field.

This is the really important news of this weekend. Are you in the field or out? And if in, comfortably in? Or nervously in? And if out, barely out? Or so far out you'd need a telescope, a plane ticket and a presidential pardon to receive an invite?

We've made ESPN resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi into some hoops version of Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama and the Amazing Kreskin all rolled into one.

Never has an assistant vice president of marketing communications — which is Lunardi's day job at St. Joseph's University — grown such a cult following over his near-cosmic ability to correctly predict the 68-team NCAA tourney field.

Give the Vols three more performances as determined and entertaining as they've delivered in their first two SEC tournament games, and Lunardi just might have to find a place for the Vols. Of course, by then they wouldn't need his help, because three more wins will guarantee them an automatic bid.

"There's things a lot tougher in life to have to get up and do than come here tomorrow and play a 40-minute basketball game," said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, who is in his first season with the Vols but has plenty of postseason experience elsewhere. "I'm just happy for our guys. They get a chance to play again."

When you're UT, and you stood just 13-18 just before the start of Wednesday's rout over Auburn, and you're still only 15-18, and it's either the NCAA tournament or spring break, every chance to play again is gravy.

But Vanderbilt entered Thursday's game with a 19-12 record and the very real notion that it probably needed at least one SEC tourney win, if not two, to lock down its first NCAA bid since 2012. Instead, the Commodores went down by 15 points in the first half to the team they topped by 14 and 17 points during the regular season.

"These guys are very intelligent," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said of his players. "They know there's a lot on the line, and there's been a lot on the line for us for the last several weeks. I just thought we played a little tight."

That certainly seemed to be the case until midway through the second half, when the Commodores appeared to relax and Tennessee appeared to retreat defensively, worn down from playing five players 29 or more minutes for the second time in 20 hours.

So the Commodores closed within a point with 6:50 to go. Then a 3-pointer off the fingers of reserve Joe Toye put them up by a point with 4:19 to go. They again led by a point with 2:43 to go. But then the Vols did the thing they have done occasionally over this sour season — they came up big when it mattered most.

Robert Hubbs III hit a runner in the lane after grabbing an offensive rebound. Then Armani Moore, with the shot clock under 10, buried a 3-pointer. Two Detrick Mostella free throws in the basket made the Vols' advantage 65-59 with 55 seconds to go.

Of course, this is also when the fun began, for Vandy sandwiched a pair of 3-pointers around Derek Reese's two free throws to close the gap to two.

Then Mostella missed a free throw, rebounded that miss to force a second one-and-one, but missed that as well. The Commodores' Wade Baldwin took off down the court with the ball with 3.7 seconds to play, and he appeared to hit a layup just ahead of the horn to send the game to overtime.

On Tennessee's bench, Moore was preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.

"I was just thinking about how many minutes we had already played," he said. "I was just thinking about it like, 'Man, we've got to play another five minutes.'"

But video replays clearly showed the ball still in Baldwin's left hand when the light behind the backboard flashed red, signaling the game's end. UT was a winner and Vanderbilt was back to feeling the pressure of the bubble for at least a few more days, Lunardi dropping them from a No. 9 seed to a No. 11 and into the Tuesday play-in game in Dayton opposite Monmouth.

(Proof the NCAA selection committee has a fiendish sense of humor: Monmouth coach King Rice was once an assistant to Stallings at Vanderbilt.)

On a more somber note, there are those who believe this loss puts Stallings on the coaching bubble after 17 seasons on the West End, though Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams didn't seem to be leaning that way late Thursday afternoon.

"This year's not over yet," he said. "I've got a feeling we've got a lot of basketball left to play this season. I don't know what else to say. Tennessee played a great game. This is what makes March Madness March Madness."

How much basketball the Vols have left in them remains a mystery. They should probably run out of gas this afternoon against talented LSU, which UT humbled last month in Knoxville. But a Bruce Pearl-coached Auburn team faced a similarly talented Bayou Bengals bunch last season under the exact same circumstances, and Auburn prevailed.

"Defensively, Tennessee — they're hard to guard," Pearl said late Wednesday night after his former program beat his current one by 38 points. "They're hard to stay in front of."

As both Auburn and Vanderbilt have now learned in less than a day's time, at least for this SEC tournament, they're apparently impossible to stay in front of on the scoreboard, too.

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