Trailing visiting Vanderbilt 30-13 after 18 minutes Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Big Orange appeared destined to fall to 0-3 with Jones subbing for suspended head coach Bruce Pearl. The Vols scored the last seven points of the half, however, to kick-start a comeback that ultimately would produce a dramatic 67-64 victory.
"I was happy for 'em ... to get off the schneid," Jones said after improving his record as interim head coach to 1-2.
Ultimately, the Vols had to get on the ball late in order to get off the schneid. Down 64-61 with two minutes left, they scored the game's final six points. Melvin Goins hit a pair of three throws with 1:55 remaining. Freshman Tobias Harris took it from there - scoring off a nifty assist by Cameron Tatum with 1:08 to go, then hitting a pair of free throws with 2.7 seconds left. Brian Williams intercepted Vandy's inbounds pass near midcourt to kill the Commodores' hopes of forcing overtime.
With the win, Tennessee improves to 11-6 overall and 1-2 in SEC play. Vanderbilt slips to 12-4 and 1-2.
After losing six of its previous nine games, the Big Orange pulled out all of the stops in this contest. Jones donned the orange jacket in honor of former UT coaching legend Ray Mears. Jacqui Pearl, Bruce's daughter, sang the National Anthem. A fireworks display accompanied the introduction of Tennessee's players.
Once the game tipped off, however, it was the Commodores who provided the fireworks. Exploding from an 8-8 tie, they followed a blown breakaway dunk by Scotty Hopson with a 19-3 run to go up 27-11.
"I don't think I've missed a dunk in my whole career at Tennessee," Hopson sheepishly admitted. "It hurt.... I think I just got too nonchalant, didn't keep my eyes on the rim."
When Vandy's lead swelled to 30-13 moments later, the Vols appeared dead in the water. They weren't.
Harris hit a 7-footer and Goins assisted Williams for a layup. Then, fouled on a three-point try with 3.2 seconds left to the break, Skylar McBee hit all three foul shots. Though seemingly inconsequential at the time, that 7-0 run whittled the halftime deficit to 30-20 while injecting a little life into the Vols and 21,198 of their fans.
Tennessee finished the first half shooting a frigid 20 percent (7 of 35) from the field, including 0 of 9 from beyond the arc. Given that figure, the fact the Vols trailed by just 10 points was almost a positive development.
"It was an aberration, shooting 20 percent in the first half," Jones said, adding that the Vols were " jacked up" because the game was on national TV and ESPN's GameDay crew was on hand. "I knew we would make shots."
Once the second half started, the Vols did precisely that. After McBee hit back-to-back 3-pointers, Hopson scored off a steal to whittle the deficit to 46-41 with 11:42 left. Hopson took over the game moments later, scoring six consecutive Vol points to turn a 50-55 deficit into a 56-56 tie with 5:26 remaining.
A 3-pointer by Cameron Tatum gave Tennessee a 61-59 lead but John Jenkins answered with a 3 that put Vandy on top 62-61. Two free throws by the Commodores' Jeffery Taylor pushed the lead to 64-61 with 2:11 remaining and set up the dramatic finish.
After making just 1 of 8 shots in the first half, Hopson went 7 for 12 in the second en route to a team-high 16 points. Harris contributed 15 points and nine rebounds. Tatum chipped in 12 points and McBee 10. Williams came off the bench to add 8 points and 12 rebounds (8 of them off the offensive glass).
Jenkins scored 21 points for Vandy, despite making just 2 of 6 shots from 3. Taylor added 14 and Brad Tinsley 12 points and 5 assists. The Commodores outshot Tennessee 41.2 to 35.1 percent from the field and won the backboards 42-41 but were done in by 21 turnovers.
In retrospect, that 7-0 run at the end of the first half that trimmed the gap from 30-13 to 30-20 was the turning point of the game.
"That was huge," Jones said. "I told the team that the reason we won that basketball game was that we cut that deficit to 10 at halftime. Seventeen would've been a difficult task to come back from. Cutting it to 10 was manageable, and we came out with a lot of spirit in the second half."
Williams agreed that the 7-0 spurt gave the Vols a big emotional lift, noting: "From that last two minutes of the first half, when we got it to 10 just like that, then our starters came out (for the second half) and did a great job, I knew we had a chance to win the game."
After quipping that the Vols "couldn't throw a penny in the ocean" during the game's first 18 minutes, Tatum also touched on the importance of that brief pre-halftime rally.
"It gave us a lot of confidence," he said. "That group that was out there did a great job of making hustle plays, playing defense and even scoring. It was great for us."