NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee entered Wednesday's game with six more scholarship players on roster than its opponent. But it was the Vols who were out-hustled and ran out of gas late.
The shorthanded Vanderbilt Commodores ousted Tennessee, 64-60 on Wednesday night in Memorial Gymnasium after building an early double-digit lead and weathering a late, vicious UT storm.
"Hard fought game," third-year Vols head coach Cuonzo Martin said after the demoralizing loss. "Vandy did a good job of setting the tone early, playing hard and playing with energy."
Vandy led by as many as 12 while the Commodores led for much of the contest and dictated the tempo on both ends of the floor. But aided by a noticeably large contingency of road Vol fans among the 10,733 in attendance, UT made its surge.
The Vols (14-8, 5-4 SEC) clawed back and finally knotted the score at 53 apiece with 6:35 left. But Vanderbilt (13-8, 5-4) quickly sprinted back out in front to take a commanding lead into the final minute.
Rod Odom, who had a game-high 26 points, hit what looked to be the proverbial dagger by nailing a 3-pointer that put Vandy up 62-56 with 49 seconds left. A missed Jordan McRae shot to follow up seemed to be the end of UT's comeback bid.
It wasn't. The Vols forced a late turnover and took advantage of some missed Vanderbilt free throws to make it Tennessee's ball, down 62-60 with 16 seconds left.
Josh Richardson drove the lane on UT's final possession and absorbed contact from a Vanderbilt defender with the clock ticking under 5 seconds.
Martin got the look he wanted. But Richardson missed the shot, and the referee swallowed his whistle in controversial fashion.
"I mean, it looks like contact, but it was a no-call," Martin said. "It's part of it. It's tough. I was locked in right on it, as close as you can get I would imagine, but it's tough. It's part of the game.
"But that doesn't win or lose a ball game."
Richardson's late miss didn't lose UT the game, but Vandy's hot shooting may as well have. The Commodores shot 60 percent in the opening half to build their 10-point halftime lead, and finished 24-for-46 (52.2 percent) from the field.
Kyle Fuller fueled that performance. Fuller, the Commodores' starting point guard, notched 12 points and 10 assists while keeping the Vols' defenders on their toes all game long.
"I thought Fuller did a great job of constantly penetrating and attacking the lane to make stuff happen," Martin said. "He got his head up early, and never let up."
Jarnell Stokes, who notched his 31st career double-double with 14 points and 11 boards, practically couldn't believe the Commodores' offensive flow and Odom's 6-for-6 start.
"The way they shot the ball and ran their offense," Stokes said, "it was amazing. Odom hit some tough shots, Fuller kept getting into the lane, and they ran some plays that during the game that we felt like there was nothing we could do about."
Richardson (14) and Jordan McRae (16) led the Vols back late, combining for five 3-pointers as the 'Dores packed it in and dared UT to shoot from deep.
But McRae missed each of his last two 3-point attempts — both of which came in the final two minutes. Along with Richardson's late runner that failed to tie the game, the missed opportunities proved costly.
"It's frustrating for us," McRae said. "But our main thing is trying to learn from this and trying not to do the same thing in the next game."
Lately, the Vols haven't been doing much of the same thing from game to game, at all. UT was able to break a win-loss-win-loss drag on Saturday with a road win at Alabama, but Wednesday's loss continues the Vols' identity crisis.
It could also loom large come March, when UT will hope for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid — something that has eluded the Vols in each of Martin's first two seasons.
Stokes, who has been in Knoxville for both of those narrow misses, conceded that as much as players try to block it out, they know exactly what is at stake.
"It's impossible not to think about (making the NCAA tournament)," Stokes said. "The last two years, we felt like we should have gotten in. My first year here, we finished No. 2 in the SEC and then the second year, we beat some really good teams.
"This year, we feel like we are going to pull it out in the end. We know that we're on the bubble, and that we have to make a statement to get into the tournament."