Tennessee survives Vandy in OT; holds on to No. 1

Tennessee Volunteer Grant Williams reaching over the Vanderbilt defense.

It took every one of junior forward Grant Williams’ 43 points, including all 23 of his free throws, to hold off the Commodores of Vanderbilt this past Wednesday night, from pulling off a massive upset. Williams had the game of his life and the best free throw shooting performance by a college player in six decades. This was a career-high for Williams, as the Tennessee Volunteers (17-1, 6-0) avoided a repeat of their last trip to Memorial Gym after they were freshly pinned the No. 1 team in the land. Final score, 88-83.

The Vols have their longest winning streak in nearly a century, having now won 13 straight games and first since moving to No. 1 for the second time in program history. They have also won five of the last six against their in-state rival.

“You’re going to get the best shot from people every single night,” coach Rick Barnes said.

The Vols took a 38-37 lead into halftime. They never led by more than six in the second half. Tennessee trailed 76-70 before Williams rallied his troops in the final minute of regulation. He hit two free throws off of a flagrant foul call on Vandy’s Clevon Brown. Williams then, scored off an inbounds play to pull the Vols within two. Admiral Schofield hit a jumper with 38 seconds left to tie it at 76.

Vanderbilt Commodores forward Simisola Shittu (11) shoots against the Tennessee Volunteers. (Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports)

Williams had the best scoring performance for Tennessee since Allan Houston in 1990, when he posted 43. This was the most points allowed by Vanderbilt to one player since 2007, when Morris Almond scored 44 for Rice. Williams scored Tennessee’s first 10 points in overtime. His three-point play came after Saben Lee’s free throw gave Vandy its last lead at 82-81 with 40 seconds left.

Williams knocked down the most free throws without a miss in the NCAA since Arlen Clark was 24 of 24 for Oklahoma State in 1959. “It’s something I’ve worked on since the summer. You don’t get many opportunities like that. You have to take advantage of those,” said Williams following the contest. Williams out-shot the black and gold at the line all by his lonesome.

The Commodores (9-9, 0-6) came in hoping to pull off their seventh upset of a No. 1 team in Memorial Gym, a list of wins that includes knocking off Tennessee in 2008, a day after the Vols took over the top spot. The Commodores not only out-rebounded Tennessee, they shot 50 percent from the floor, and were 10 of 21 from beyond the arc. These Commodores are now off to the worst start in SEC play in school history, now with six straight losses. However, they showed tremendous effort, and without extreme controversy involving the officials late, they pull this game out. That in itself, has to be a confidence booster for this young squad.

Jordan Bone ended the game with 14 points for Tennessee.

Aaron Nesmith had a career-high 24 points for Vanderbilt. Lee added 21. Matt Ryan had 12, and Simisola Shittu added 10.