Clearly embarrassed by a 64-60 Feb. 5 loss in Nashville to a Vandy squad featuring just seven healthy scholarship players, Tennessee came out looking for revenge. The Vols found it – racing to a 33-11 lead, then continuing to press the accelerator en route to a 76-38 annihilation.
The 38-point margin was Tennessee's biggest in the rivalry's history. The 38 points by Vanderbilt were the fewest the Vols have allowed in Thompson-Boling Arena's history.
"We kind of took that last game personal," Tennessee point guard Antonio Barton said. "They came out and hit us in the mouth hard."
Vengeance was sweet and abundant on Saturday, especially for Barton. Vandy counterpart Kyle Fuller schooled him in the earlier meeting, producing 12 points and 10 assists. The rematch saw Barton redeem himself with 21 points, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 turnovers in 28 spectacular minutes. The Vol senior hit 7 of 11 shots, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range. He also helped contain Fuller.
"The whole team was locked in but I was even more locked in," Barton said. "When we played them at their home Fuller kind of facilitated the whole game. He got into the lane at ease, so I kind of took it personal. I wanted to stop it this game."
Mission accomplished. Fuller scored a team-high 9 points but made just 4 of 11 shots. He finished with an equal number of assists (2) and turnovers (2) as the Commodores slipped to 15-13 overall and 7-9 in league play.
The Vols did an even better job on 6-foot-9 Rod Odom. After scoring 26 points in the game at Nashville, he managed just 4 points (on 1 for 7 shooting) in the rematch.
The obvious question: Why was Tennessee 38 points better in the rematch with a team that beat the Vols just four weeks ago?
"Defense," Barton said. "We took pride in our defense. We helped each other out. We did an awesome job of rotating when guys got beat. We just had each other's backs."
No one was happier to witness the transformation than Tennessee's head coach.
Noting that the Vols were "clicking on all cylinders," Cuonzo Martin added: "Defense can take you a long way."
It's no secret that mediocre point-guard play is a big reason Tennessee has underachieved its way to an 18-11 overall record and a 9-7 SEC mark. It was obvious from the opening minute that this would not be the case on Saturday. Barton hit a 3-pointer 20 seconds into the game. Jordan McRae added two more as the lead moved to 14-4. Barton bombed home back-to-back 3s as the gap swelled to 22-6, then flashed a big grin.
"It was a lot of fun," he said. "The crowd was amazing, and we kind of fed off their energy."
The Vols' opening salvo was not nearly as much fun for Stallings. Known for working the officials from opening tip to final horn, he spent the game's last 25 minutes in his chair, powerless to stop the game's descent into an epic beat-down.
Jarnell Stokes added 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Vols, posting his 17th double-double of the season. He also contributed 3 assists and 3 blocks. McRae, who fouled out after just 22 minutes, produced just 9 points. Josh Richardson also scored 9.
Tennessee was red-hot in the first half, shooting 57.7 percent from the field, including 7 of 12 from 3-point range. The Vols' first-half defense was just as good, limiting Vandy to 31.8-percent shooting and forcing eight turnovers.
"When you come out playing defense like that," Barton said, "everything falls into place."
With Tennessee up 41-18 at halftime, 17,208 Vol fans expected a letdown was forthcoming. Senior post Jeronne Maymon expected one, too, so he launched a pre-emptive strike.
"The first thing he said when we walked in the locker room at halftime was, ‘We can't let up. We can't get too up,'" Barton recalled. "We're known for coming out the second half and letting teams back in the game, so we emphasized that we play with the same intensity we did in the first half."
If anything, the Vols came out even more intense in the second half. They did not allow a field goal during the 10-minute stretch from 17:02 to 6:54 while pushing the lead from 46-22 to 61-27. The Commodores wound up shooting a frigid 14.8 percent (4 of 27) after the break.
Tennessee's players clearly wanted to demolish Vandy, not just beat Vandy. This was a payback game for the earlier meeting in Nashville.
"It kind of was," Barton conceded. "But it was something where we all came together as a team. It's getting down to crunch time (in terms of earning an NCAA Tournament bid), so we've got to make a statement here. We've got to lock in and be focused from here on out."
Armani Moore, who came off the bench to contribute 8 points, 3 rebounds, an assist, a block and a steal in 24 quality minutes, touched on the same theme.
"It's strictly business," he said. "Once you let yourself down one time, you try harder the next time not to do the same thing."