Following Tennessee’s 28-point loss to Kentucky on Saturday, the 24th-ranked Vols vowed that they would be tougher.
They got their first crack at that on Tuesday night, with a pivotal in-state rivalry matchup against Vanderbilt providing the perfect stage in Memorial Gymnasium.
Fueled by swift lineup changes, a gritty 100-year rivalry and some late heroics, Tennessee beat the Commodores 68-60.
It was UT’s ninth straight victory at Vanderbilt.
Here are our takeaways from the matchup:
As Promised, Barnes Shakes Things Up
The biggest takeaway, at least early-on, was obvious: Rick Barnes finally made his move.
When starting lineups were announced, John Fulkerson stayed on the bench.
In his place came Uros Plavsic.
On Saturday, Barnes mentioned that “somehow, some way, we’ve got to change the vibe of this team.”
Evidently, Tuesday’s change constituted starting Plavsic in place of Fulkerson, who was held scoreless and reboundless against Kentucky.
And by game’s end on Tuesday, that decision had paid off.
Plavsic Flashes, Saves — and Fouls
In total, Plavsic finished with 13 points and seven rebounds.
His last play was undoubtedly his greatest, though.
After a Scottie Pippen trey had tied the game at 60 with under a minute left, Plavsic gathered a board and dumped in a hook shot to give Tennessee the lead.
Moments later, Zakai Zeigler (11 points) nabbed a steal to clinch the win.
After the game, Plavsic posed with fans to celebrate the best outing of his career.
So what’s the difference in Plavsic’s play this season, especially on Tuesday?
“It's me understanding what they wanted me to do,” he said. “Doing their stuff has given me and our team success.”
Added Rick Barnes: “When it was tied, I thought Uros was big-time.”
Though Plavsic won the game for UT, he was also far from perfect.
As time expired in the first half, he committed a shooting foul by reaching down as Pippen went up to shoot.
That allowed Pippen to sink a free throw before the break, drawing Vandy within one at 33-32.
Vols Show Needed Toughness
Early in the first half, Santiago Vescovi got tangled up with Vanderbilt’s Trey Thomas.
With Vescovi’s arms wrapped around one side of the ball and Thomas holding the other side, the two grappled until Vescovi slung Thomas away.
Referees intervened quickly, but the moment was far from Vescovi’s only gritty moment on Tuesday.
Late in the second half, the Uruguay native took an errant elbow from Myles Stute.
That was all Vescovi would take, though, as he charged Stute before Plavsic and Jamaine Mann got involved.
After the dust settled, each team was charged with two technical fouls.
Altogether, the moments emphasized Vescovi’s growth — but they also showed the grittiness that Tennessee reiterated when it survived the Commodores’ comeback.
While Vescovi led the Vols in scrums, he also led them in points with 14 on the night.
"I told them I was proud of them tonight for showing them the grit they showed start-to-finish,” Barnes said. “It was a complete team win."
Chandler Elevates as James Sits
As Barnes referenced, Vescovi wasn’t the only Vol to contribute.
Kennedy Chandler racked up 13 points, four rebounds, four assists and five steals.
One offensive play was particularly impressive, as Chandler slid into the lane before lofting a one-handed reverse layup.
He also made several defensive plays in transition and shook off the effects of an elbow that caught him in the mouth.
Chandler’s play was especially crucial given another’s absence, as Josiah-Jordan James sat through the entire second half.
Going into the locker room at halftime, Barnes told the SEC Network’s Alyssa Lang that an injury meant the Charleston native would “probably not” be back after the break.
During the first half, James took an unintentional elbow to the face before being helped to the sideline.
Defense, Free Throws Finish the Job
Against Kentucky, Tennessee’s defense was nowhere to be found.
In the Vanderbilt win, though, the Vols made plays when they counted most.
After Plavsic’s bucket, Zakai Zeigler nabbed a crucial steal before drawing a foul.
UT went a perfect 6-of-6 from the line to ice the win, notching another victory in a series Tennessee now leads 127-75.
Now, the Vols will look ahead to their rematch against LSU in Knoxville.
The Tigers and Vols will tip at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.