Memorial Magic Is Back… For At Least One Night

The Vanderbilt Commodores played host to rival Tennessee Volunteers on Wednesday night and the game was nothing short of electric. Coming into the game, Tennessee had won 11 straight matchups dating all the way back to 2017. No matter how close the games had been in the past, Tennessee had always found a way to pull out the victory and send the Commodores home with a loss. The Commodores coming into this game had been reeling a bit. They had just beaten a struggling Ole Miss team but were just eight days away from a 57 drubbing at the hands of Alabama. There were rumblings within the fanbase a coaching change was needed so much to the point Athletic Director Candice Storey Lee came out to make a public statement backing her head coach. Memorial Gym had not seen much excitement in recent years and even Aria Gerson, Vanderbilt beat writer for the Tennessean, wrote an article Tuesday highlighting “What happened to “Memorial Magic?’”. Combining the lull around the program with Tennessee having Vanderbilt’s number for the past six years, it seemed this upcoming matchup was not a good recipe for the Commodores. But Wednesday night? Wednesday night in Memorial Gym off 25th Avenue was DIFFERENT. Vanderbilt found a way to defy all the demons that had been surrounding this program for the better part of the last half-decade. Vanderbilt went toe to toe with the #6th ranked team in the country, took every punch they had, found a way to be the team without the utter meltdown resulting in the loss, and pulled out a 66-65 victory. This game was a signature moment in the Jerry Stackhouse era, and if this program has hope under his tenure this is the moment that we will be looking back saying THAT was the turning point.

Now I am not saying that this program is back by any stretch, but this type of win is the type that can pull a program together from all angles. The game had all the makings of a typical, “put up a good fight but did not have enough down the stretch to get the job done” type of game, but for the first time in a while, it wasn’t that result. Early on both teams started strong from the field scoring early and often. I had highlighted Tennessee’s recent shooting woes in the game preview, but that did not seem to be a problem for them early on. The game in the first half had a good pace, and like a good boxing match both teams took some punches but responded with a punch of their own. Neither team could get a commanding lead in the game, in fact, Tennessee had the largest lead of the game of only 5 points.

 The game was close down the stretch and Vanderbilt had the ball down two points with 30 seconds to go. Liam Robbins got the ball in the post and took a tough turnaround fadeaway that just rimmed out. Tennessee freshman Julian Phillips got the loose ball all by himself on a fastbreak with 20 seconds left and passed up a wide-open dunk to pull the ball out and burn some more clock forcing Vanderbilt to try and foul him. At the moment you could feel this was not the right choice and just a freshman mistake to pass up the guaranteed points, but at the same time, he was trying to burn more clock and shorten the game. Another disadvantage for Vandy at the moment as they had only committed 2 team fouls to this point so they had to foul Tennessee five more times in the next 20 seconds to force a 1-and-1 free throw and pray Tennessee misses one and that they will have enough time to go down to try and tie the game. Vanderbilt successfully fouled five times over about 12 seconds and sent Santiago Vescovi to the free-throw line. Vescovi coming into the attempts was a 78% free throw shooter and with only 8 seconds left, if he knocked them both down the game would be all but over. Vescovi back-ended the first attempt, Vanderbilt got the rebound, pushed the ball up the floor, and called timeout all in 4 seconds to set up a play for the tie or the win. In Coach Stackhouse’s tenure in these moments, he has opted for the win and has done a good job getting his guys’ open attempts for three, but any points in this situation and sending the game to overtime felt like a massive win compared to where they were in the game just 16 seconds before. Vanderbilt from the side inbounded the ball to Robbins at the top of the key with his back turned, and he handed the ball off to Manjon who was going downhill for a layup. When he got to the rim, he jumped in the air and was surrounded by three Tennessee defenders before he found an open Tyrin Lawrence in the corner who got his three-point attempt off with just .1 seconds on the game clock. He drilled the shot and was then mobbed by teammates and students rushing the floor to celebrate a HUGE win. Coach Stackhouse himself went crazy celebrating and for the first time in what has felt like years a sense of pride rang through every Vanderbilt player, coach, student, faculty, and fan. We had won a type of game that so often had slipped away from us and beaten that orange team from Knoxville for the first time in six years. Stackhouse said before the game this team needed a signature win and this would be one, well he got it and I don’t know if it could have come at a better time.

Vanderbilt was led by big performances from Lawrence (19 points), Robbins (14 points), and Wright (12 2nd half points) who all made big-time plays in big moments. It can’t be overstated the magnitude of the win and more importantly the timing of it. Still, this team will need to flush it quickly and get back to work to prepare for a Florida team that was handed an embarrassing loss of their own from Alabama 97-69 last night. Florida (13-11, 6-5) is a solid team led by their big man Colin Castleton, and I believe this will be a true measure of Vanderbilt to see if they can control their emotions off of a big game and not have a letdown. The two teams will face off Saturday at 2:30 pm CT on SEC Network.


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