NASHVILLE, Tenn. Tennessee had to venture away to possibly save a season that once appeared to have gone astray.
Following Sunday's win at South Carolina for their first road victory of the season, the Volunteers traveled here Wednesday night to sweep the season series over rival Vanderbilt with a convincing 58-46 win in front of 12,686 at Memorial Gym.
"Like I said to our guys, I think we can beat any team in (the Southeastern Conference)," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said after the 12-point victory. "We have been up and down and haven't had any consistency. But when you get a road win, it's kind of a sigh of relief.
"You got a road win. Let's get locked in and go get this next one."
In winning four of its last six games, Tennessee (13-10, 5-6) continues to ride the sturdy shoulders of sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes, who posted his sixth consecutive double-double by scoring a game-high 17 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. He now has a league-leading 10 double-doubles for the season.
"Jarnell has really stepped up as our guy," said Martin, whose team plays hosts to No. 25 Kentucky on Saturday. It will be the first game Kentucky will play without freshman sensation Nerlens Noel, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in Tuesday's loss at Florida.
"So now, our offense flows through Jarnell," Martin added. " Now, you have a guy you run your offense through, as opposed in the beginning of the season."
Wednesday night's win by the Vols featured the three-pronged attack of Stokes, junior forward Jordan McRae (14 points, 11 rebounds) and junior guard Trae Golden (12 points, seven rebounds). They combined for 43 of UT's total scoring, including scoring 35 of the team's 40 points in the first half. They also had all but 10 of the Vols' 38 total rebounds.
"We have guys out there who can score the basketball," Martin said. "So, when teams do (double team Stokes defensively), Jarnell does a good job of finding them, and they're making plays."
Vanderbilt's 18-point win over Arkansas on Saturday that snapped a four-game losing streak was apparently fool's gold. After the first 10 minutes of the game, the Commodores were dominated by the Volunteers the remainder of the game.
"That's the best I have seen them play," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said of Tennessee's effort. His team plays host to SEC newcomer Texas A&M on Saturday.
"Some of it was us," he added. "I thought some of it was our defensive play. We made it easy on them because we missed shots."
The Commodores shot 37.7 percent from the field, but UT wasn't much better at 42.9 percent. The Vols held a commanding 38-28 edge in rebounding.
"I'm not saying it was all us," Stallings said. "They played particularly well in the first half."
The Commodores (9-4, 3-8) did show some life early in the second half, though, when they went to a 1-2-2 halfcourt trap defensively that dropped into a 2-3 zone. Trailing by 16 points, Vanderbilt forced five turnovers in seven UT possessions for a modest 8-0 run to close the gap to eight points midway through the second half.
McRae ended Vandy's run with a baseline jumper to start a 6-0 run for the Volunteers, who eventually built the lead back up to 16 points down the stretch before settling into the 12-point victory.
"We changed it up on them and got some momentum," Stallings said of going to the zone in the second half. "It gave us a chance to get back into the game. They turned the ball over a little bit against it. But when you are behind, it's hard to stay in zone."
Sophomore guard Kedren Johnson was the only Commodore to score in double figures with 11 points. Freshman guard Kevin Bright had 11 rebounds for Vandy. Junior forward Rod Odom, who scored a combined 35 points in Vandy's previous two outings including a career-high 20 points at LSU, was held to six points on 2-of-10 shooting.
Tennessee raced to a 40-28 halftime lead by getting 35 of its points from the trio of Stokes, Richardson and Golden.
After trading baskets and neither team leading by more than four points early, the Volunteers turned a one-point lead midway through the first half into a 38-24 bulge thanks to a 19-6 run. During the burst, the Vols used the inside-outside scoring of Stokes and McRae.
McRae canned a pair of 3-pointers during the run, and by the time Stokes drove the lane for an uncontested slam dunk out of the halfcourt offense, Tennessee had settled into that 12-point halftime lead.
Of the Volunteers' first 19 points, 11 were scored by Golden, who was playing his second game back after missing two games with a hamstring injury.
The win was Tennessee's fourth in a row over its in-state rival, including surviving a one-point victory at home on Jan. 29 when the Commodores had two shots at point-blank range to secure the victory. It was also the sixth series sweep in a season for the Volunteers over Vandy in the last 13 years.