KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Jordan Bowden’s steadiness at the foul line made sure Tennessee avoided a stunning collapse.
Bowden calmly sank two free throws with five seconds left to clinch a 65-61 victory over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night after Tennessee nearly blew a 12-point lead in the final minute.
“Those two free throws were huge free throws, man,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Tennessee went on a 12-0 run to grab a 61-48 advantage with 2½ minutes left and still led 63-51 in the last minute before Vanderbilt staged a furious rally.
The Vols committed three turnovers in that frantic final minute. Vanderbilt’s Saben Lee hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the final 22 seconds, and the second one cut Tennessee’s lead to 63-61 with six seconds left.
“At the end, I thought we thought the game was over like a bunch of immature guys and got sloppy,” Barnes said. “The next thing you know, you’re in a battle.”
That’s when Bowden finally put the game out of reach. Bowden ended up making all seven of his free throws while scoring 17 points.
Tennessee (15-11, 7-6 SEC) withstood a 23-point performance from Vanderbilt guard Jordan Wright. The freshman reserve more than doubled his previous career high of 11, which he reached in back-to-back games against LSU and Mississippi State earlier this month.
“Coach told me to be aggressive,” Wright said. “We had some starters go out early (in foul trouble), so I just said I’d try to pick it up, pick up their scoring.”
Vanderbilt (9-17, 1-12) has lost 32 of its last 33 SEC games, including two conference tournament contests. Vanderbilt has dropped four straight since a 99-90 victory over LSU that snapped an SEC record 26-game skid in regular-season conference games.
Tennessee has won each of the last six games in this in-state rivalry. Tennessee won 66-45 at Vanderbilt on Jan. 18 as the Commodores missed all 25 of their 3-point attempts, ending a string of 1,080 consecutive games in which they had made at least one 3-pointer.
Vanderbilt was much more competitive this time but couldn’t quite get over the top.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores are showing they can compete with quality SEC teams for a half. Now they need to figure out how to close the deal. Vanderbilt has led in the second half in four of its last five games but only has one win to show for it. The Commodores led at halftime in a win over LSU and in losses to Mississippi State and No. 10 Kentucky. They were tied at halftime and led by as many as five in the second half Tuesday.
Tennessee: The Vols kept their faint hopes of a third straight NCAA Tournament berth alive by winning this game, but they must have a big surge the rest of the way. That’s a tall order for a team that hasn’t won two straight games since Jan. 21. Tennessee’s schedule gets much tougher from here. The Vols’ remaining schedule includes two games with No. 13 Auburn, trips to Arkansas and Kentucky plus a home game with Florida.
JAMES GOES SCORELESS
Tennessee guard Josiah Jordan-James made his first start since returning from a groin injury but went scoreless in 13 minutes as he dealt with foul trouble. The 6-foot-6 freshman had started each of Tennessee’s first 20 games before the injury caused him to miss four contests. He returned to action Saturday and played 30 minutes off the bench in a 63-61 loss at South Carolina.
Tennessee’s players heard a postgame locker-room speech from injured guard Lamonte’ Turner and former Vols star Admiral Schofield, who is now with the Washington Wizards. Both were key members of the Tennessee teams that won a share of the SEC regular-season title in 2018 and reached the Sweet 16 last season.
“It really helped us, having players who’ve been through already what we’re going through right now,” said Vescovi, a freshman guard.
Vanderbilt hosts Georgia on Saturday.
Tennessee is at Auburn on Saturday.
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