Nichols: No. 10 Tennessee shows it belongs in the ‘room where it happens’ with revolutionary rout over Vanderbilt

The Vols used several highlight-reel plays and deep runs to drown the Commodores, earning a historic win for Rick Barnes.
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Before Saturday night’s matchup against Vanderbilt, the social media team for No. 10 Tennessee (10-1, 4-1 SEC) released an absolute gem for the Vols’ pre-game promo graphic.

The image featured a star, much like the one seen on Playbills for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning production, Hamilton.

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The logos were the same except for one difference: instead of a dark outline of the Founding Father pointing upward, the top part of this star featured a similarly-shaded figure resembling a basketball player.

The reference, of course, was to the Vols “topping” their in-state rival, whose logo features a star with an inset V.

Tennessee’s content creators kept the Hamilton schtick going all night, using song lyrics from the play to accentuate different points in the game.

Now, I’ve seen Hamilton — twice, in fact.

Once was on a spring break trip to Chicago in 2017, as I waited hours in the cold to grab tickets I used to surprise my girlfriend later that day.

The second time came at Memphis’ Orpheum Theater in 2019, with my grandmother and step-dad sitting beside me.

Each time, the lyrics were flawless, the choreography was fantastic, and, overall, the effect was absolutely mesmerizing, as the characters shared a different side of American history in the most unique way possible.

Rick Barnes’ Vols are just as good, at least when they can hit the right notes.

Tennessee did just that on Saturday.

The Vols forced Vanderbilt leading scorer Scotty Pippen Jr. into six turnovers, holding strong when he exploded for 13 of his 18 points in the second half.

More importantly, though, Tennessee focused on its own playmakers, spotlighting several different guys en route to an 81-61 win over the Vols’ in-state rival.

Those spotlights came in several different acts: some on the stat sheet, some on the floor, and even one that requires a look into the history books.

So let’s start with the numbers.

Keon Johnson led the Vols with a career-high 16 points, seven of which came at the charity stripe.

“I told the guys I wasn’t gonna be Shaq at the line tonight, and I wasn’t,” Johnson said. “That was nice.”

John Fulkerson added 15 more points, pouring in six straight during a first-half sequence to help the Vols create separation. Mind you, this was after Fulkerson traded his typical choices of Pal’s Frenchie Fries or Lucky Charms cereal for roughly 20 bowls of chicken noodle soup, since he had his wisdom teeth taken out recently.

“It’s been hard to eat for a while,” Fulkerson said. “I’ve lost weight. I love chicken noodle soup. It’s one of my favorite foods. But once I get through this I might never eat it again.”

VJ Bailey and Jaden Springer rounded out the double-digit scoring, as they finished with 11 and 10 points, respectively.

Bailey knocked down three straight 3-pointers early in the second half, aiding Tennessee on a run that featured five straight connections from beyond the arc.

“When he’s taking good shots, we think they’re going in and we need that,” Barnes said. “We have to be more consistent at the offensive end.”

And Springer? He made the most of his second career start with seven rebounds to go with those 10 points, as well four assists that each ended in a momentum-clinching play.

Now, let’s lift the curtain for a couple of those highlights.

The first big play came from Tennessee’s favorite flying Frenchman, Yves Pons.

With the Vols trailing by four after a 10-0 Vanderbilt run, Pons registered his 16th block of the season — only to answer his own rejection on the other end.

After snagging a defender-splitting pass from Springer, Pons slammed one home to cork the Commodores’ spurt, kickstarting a 19-5 run to close the first half for Tennessee.

But the most telling play of the night came just a moment later.

Josiah-Jordan James streaked down the floor ahead of Santiago Vescovi, who caught a pass with no black jerseys within range.

Only one Vanderbilt player stood between Vescovi and a speedy James, who took Vescovi’s heave in stride, dribbled once and rose for a slam that left the sophomore swinging from the rim.

Maybe James’ energy came from the emotional scarring he experienced in a video that surfaced on Barstool’s Twitter account Saturday afternoon. Maybe it stemmed from somewhere else. Who’s to say, really?

Either way, his magnificent dunk was, of course, the “story of tonight” on Tennessee’s social media, as the Vols piggybacked on one of Manuel-Miranda’s classic melodies.

In the play, that song references Alexander Hamilton’s first meeting with John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and Marquis de Lafayette, the “fighting Frenchman” on whom all the Yves Pons jokes have been based.

During that Act 1 scene, the young revolutionaries clink glasses, declaring loyalty to their new nation. Together, they agree that their freedom can never be taken, that the meeting between them would go down in history.

And that’s where we come to our final spotlight from the Vols’ win, which took place in Tennessee’s 200th hoops matchup against the Commodores.

As the clock struck zero on Saturday, the win marked the Vols’ sixth victory of the season by 20 or more points.

More importantly, though, it notched win No. 719 for Rick Barnes, tying him with Texas Western’s Don Haskins (yes, the coach from Glory Road) and Kansas legend Phog Allen for 20th all-time in Division I college basketball victories.

“I love what I do, and all that means is I’ve had a lot of good players,” Barnes said when asked about the feat. “I love the fact the game continues to change and see if we can keep up with it, and I love watching players get better. That’s something we take pride in as a staff. The good Lord has blessed me with so many opportunities and working with so many different people and I’ve had some terrific bosses.”

Of course, Barnes’ current boss has his hands full with the football program.

On the hardwood, though, Tennessee’s men’s basketball program could be galloping straight toward the Final Four.

So, whether good or bad, we certainly know one line in Hamilton that applies to Tennessee basketball and football right now:

“History has its eyes on you.”

Here’s hoping we don’t discover either program’s Aaron Burr anytime soon.