NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings didn’t know when Jeffery Taylor would break out. He just felt it would be soon.
The sophomore guard’s timing couldn’t have been better.
Taylor scored 16 of his career-high 26 points in the first half, and No. 22 Vanderbilt never trailed Tuesday night in routing No. 12 Tennessee 90-71, grabbing sole possession of second place in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division, one loss behind No. 3 Kentucky.
“I’m glad it came tonight,” Stallings said. “Not surprised it came tonight. He was on the verge. He kind of had that look and (I’m) really happy for him.”
The Commodores (18-5, 7-2) swept the season series against their instate rival for the first time since 2004-05—the season before coach Bruce Pearl took over Tennessee. They did it with the best shooting performance at the free throw line in Stallings’ 11 seasons at Vanderbilt, connecting on 37 of 43.
Pearl noted Taylor, who was a perfect 12 of 12 at the line, hit one fewer than his entire team (13 of 21). Tennessee (18-5, 6-3) had a three-game winning streak snapped, and now the defending SEC East champs must visit No. 3 Kentucky on Saturday night.
“This puts us in a really uphill battle to defend our SEC East championship,” Pearl said. “We’re obviously disappointed with the way we played.”
Jermaine Beal scored 20 points and A.J. Ogilvy had 11 for Vanderbilt, which didn’t miss reserve John Jenkins. The freshman, who had been averaging 10.4 points, was hospitalized with flu Monday and was so ill he needed five bags of fluid intravenously.
Taylor hadn’t scored more than 10 points in a game since Jan. 23 against Auburn. He couldn’t miss against Tennessee as the sophomore was 4 of 5 from the field and perfect on all eight free throws in the first half.
“I just came in the game with the mentality of just shoot it right away instead of catching the ball and looking at what the defense is doing,” Taylor said. “Everybody already knew they were going to back off me. So I just caught it and shot it, and it went in today.”
J.P. Prince led Tennessee with 19 points, Wayne Chism had 16, Melvin Goins 11 and Scotty Hopson 10.
Brian Williams, suspended for nine games after a New Year’s Day arrest, returned to the rotation but didn’t enter the game until 13:34 was left and the game well in the Commodores’ control. He played 2 minutes, missed one shot, grabbed a rebound and picked up two fouls.
The Commodores needed this game, the first of five of six in Memorial Gym, and they were coming off an ugly 72-58 loss at Georgia.
They beat Tennessee 85-76 in Knoxville on Jan. 27, and they never let Tennessee get started in the Vols’ visit to Music City as they won for the third time in four games in this series. They improved to a perfect 12-0 at home this season, 17 straight dating to a Jan. 25, 2009, loss to Florida.
“You always want to win rivalry games,” Stallings said. “It feels good that it puts us ahead of them in the league race temporarily. Hopefully, we can keep it going. You have to take care of your home court if you are going to have a successful season. Thus far, knock on wood, we have been able to do that.”
The Commodores scored the first six points and led 44-27 at halftime. They hit eight of their first 11 shots as Tennessee missed 14 of its first 17 and eventually led by as many as 27 points twice.
“We got outplayed,” Pearl said.
The Volunteers got as close as 10 points early in the second half as Prince scored to pull them within 46-36. He missed the free throw and the chance to cut the lead to single digits for the first time since the opening minutes.
Vanderbilt responded with a 20-3 run to put the game away, and Festus Ezeli capped the spurt with two free throws with 12:38 left that gave the Commodores their biggest lead yet at 66-39. The sellout crowd taunted the Vols late by chanting “Lane Kiffin”—the name of the football coach that bolted Tennessee for Southern California last month.
Prince said it was difficult putting Vanderbilt into the bonus before halfway into the first half.
“That helped us dig a hole. That first half, we spent a lot of time watching them make free throws. Can’t foul them like that. Forty-three attempts? Simple as that,” Prince said.
Pearl, wearing his orange blazer for the rivalry, drew a technical foul at 12:14. It was just a blip as Vanderbilt eventually pushed its lead to as many as 20 when Taylor hit two free throws to make it 30-10 with 8:46 remaining.
Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton talked with Pearl at the bench during the game. Asked about it later, Pearl said he asked Hamilton if he liked his seat.
“There were a lot of things out there I wasn’t happy about,” Pearl said.