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January 15, 2011

Vandy blows 17 point lead in Knoxville

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-Vanderbilt's promising season keeps getting interrupted by the same recurring nightmare, and on Saturday, it happened again.

After blowing a 14-point lead in an upset loss to South Carolina last weekend, the Commodores once again couldn't survive a second-half collapse.

Tennessee's 7-0 run at the end of the first half started to chip away at VU's 17-point lead, and a 6-0 run to end the game gave the Volunteers just enough for a 67-64 victory over the Commodores at Thompson-Boling arena on Saturday.

The Commodores had chances offensively to answer, but failed to score in the game's final 2:11.

"We didn't finish the job, and that's really disappointing. That's very, very disappointing that we didn't finish it again. It's becoming a little bit of a common theme," coach Kevin Stallings said.

Scotty Hopson's 14-point second-half points were the key for the Vols, who recovered to shoot 48.7 percent in the second half after a dismal 20 percent mark before halftime.

And when the Vols weren't hitting, another familiar culprit-allowing offensive rebounds-once again bit the Commodores in the butt. UT pulled 19 of them, including 12 in the second half.

The final nails in the coffin came when Cameron Tatum found Tobias Harris open for a lay-up with 1:09 left, which put the Vols in front by a 65-64 count. Harris then hit both ends of a 1-and-1 with 2.7 seconds left for the final margin.

VU had chances in the final minute to counter, but committed two of its 21 turnovers in that time.

The first came when Jeffery Taylor started a drive from the right side of the lane, and found a sea of Volunteers. Taylor soon wound up on his back sliding across the lane for approximately 20 feet-with no whistle.

After everyone on the court and in the stands recovered from the shock of no whistle for either a foul or a travel, the ball went to John Jenkins in the left corner, where he stepped on the inline.

VU recovered defensively to apparently put itself in position to win, when Melvin Goins missed a short shot with 10 seconds remaining. Goins picked up the loose ball, and Festus Ezeli blocked his second attempt with eight seconds left.

But the ball took a path towards the corner, where the scramble managed to kill a few more seconds, then a Vol corralled the ball and hurled it outside to Harris, who was fouled.

Harris sunk the shots, and a near-sellout crowd erupted as Brian Williams stole the inbounds pass.

"It was a tough game. We didn't do what we needed to do. We didn't take care of the ball. We didn't rebound in the second half, and we got a couple bad breaks there at the end. Not much you can do about it," Stallings said.

Like many collapses, this one was the ultimate tail of two halves.

The Commodores appeared to be in the Volunteers' collective head throughout the first half, as the Vols looked timid in their half-court offense against VU's big, physical defense.

UT trailed 30-13 with 2:03 left in the first half. But that's when the cracks in VU's armor started to show, as Tennessee embarked on a 7-0 spurt to end the half.

An offensive rebound by Harris started the run, and Williams hit a lay-up. Ezeli committed a silly foul on Skylar McBee in the right corner, hammering him with just under four seconds left in the half on a 3-point attempt.

McBee connected on all three shots, and suddenly, it was 30-20 at the break.

"We were taking care of our [defensive] assignments [in the first half]," Stallings said. "We stopped doing that in the second half. That was very disappointing."

Vandy's Jenkins led all players in scoring with 14 first-half points, coming on 4-of-7 shooting from the field, and a 5-of-5 performance at the foul line.

McBee made two huge plays that started UT's run in the second half. With the Vols trailing 43-32, he hit a 3-pointer with 12:40 left to cut the lead to eight.

Brad Tinsley answered with a 3, but the next time down the floor, McBee nailed a 3 while Lance Goulbourne knocked him to the floor. He hit the free throw, and the Vols trailed by seven.

Both shots game as VU switched from man-to-man to zone, and they were the first 3-pointers of the day for the Vols.

That was the beginning of the end; VU's lead never got bigger than that again.

Losses like this are becoming an epidemic, and the Commodores will have to fight through the challenge of letting it go to their heads any more. Two losses have come in overtime, one being last week's eight-point defeat at Carolina.

Three of the losses have come by three points. One came today, another came in an overtime loss at Missouri on Dec. 8 as the Commodores committed a turnover and allowed a basket and a foul in the game's final seconds.

The other came to West Virginia, when Casey Mitchell hit a 3-pointer in the game's final seconds on Nov. 19.

This season's heartbreakers come off the end of last season's buzzer-beater by Murray State, which knocked VU out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round.

That makes the 'Dores 1-4 in their last five games decided by three points or less, and not surprisingly, the 'Dores looked tight at the end of this one, too.

"During the end of the game, it is a little mental with your toughness and your courage, and everything it takes to win down the stretch, especially on the road, when everyone's against you," Tinsley said.

"But you know, we're going to hear it, we're going to shrug it off, and we're going to keep getting better every day, and get a couple wins here."

The junior point guard was one of few Commodores who was able to keep his composure most of the day. He logged 34 minutes, scored 12 points, dished out five assists, and had just two turnovers.

"People try to get up and get after him, and he's done a nice job of handling the ball and playing through it. I thought he did a nice job today. … They had pressure on him the entire afternoon," Stallings said.

Jenkins led VU with 21 points, and Taylor added 14. VU shot 41.2 percent for the day.

To add injury to insult, Ezeli's knee tendonitis may be an issue again ("He asked me to come out pretty early in the game, so I assume it is," said Stallings) and Steve Tchiengang had an early collision that forced him from the game after already suffering from an Achilles' injury that may not be quite healed.

Tchiengang returned later, but played just four minutes in the second half.

Forward Andre Walker also may be out a while longer; the junior sat behind the Commodore bench on Saturday, accompanied by a set of crutches. Walker sprained his ankle a couple of weeks ago.

The Commodores (12-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) return home against Mississippi on Wednesday.


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