NASHVILLE — Devon Baulkman observed Thursday night’s locker room celebration with a sense of relief on his face.
The junior guard came off the bench then came up big in No. 10 seed Tennessee’s 67-61 win over No. 7 seed Vanderbilt in a second-round SEC tournament game at Bridgestone Arena.
Without his 12 points, six rebounds and two steals, the Vols might not be preparing to face No. 2 seed Arkansas in Friday’s quarterfinals.
“I came into the game confident, being positive and not thinking about my shoulder,” Baulkman said.
Ah, yes, the shoulder. Remember when Baulkman broke the news on Dec. 22 — after the junior-college transfer scored a season-high 22 points against Mercer — that he’s playing with what he described as a torn ligament in his left shoulder? He said at the time he will need surgery on the non-shooting joint this offseason. Ever since, he’s strapped on black brace, practiced and played.
“It’s been hard on him,” UT senior guard Josh Richardson said. “That shoulder has been rough. Sometimes, during practice, it pops out, and he has to pop it back in, and he’s freaking out. But, he’s a warrior. He’s fought through a lot this year.”
Baulkman said Thursday his shoulder has popped out of place twice this season, most recently “about four days ago.” He ices the joint and receives treatment. The pain is off-and-on, but when it’s on, it’s worse than anything he’s played through before.
“It is so painful, so painful,” he said.
Baulkman’s 12-point total Thursday was his first double-digit point total since he had 10 in a win at Mississippi State on Jan. 7.
It’s worth wondering if his season might have been different if he was fully healthy.
“He is a tough kid,” Richardson said. “He has a lot of scoring potential people never get to see.”
Richardson’s Last Laugh: Richardson smiled after he said it: “Today we were a tougher team. We played tough.”
Similar comments from Richardson following UT’s overtime win at Vanderbilt earlier this season peeved Vanderbilt freshman Wade Baldwin.
“To call us punks and (say) they out-physicaled us — from an opposing player, you are not supposed to be treating people like that after a game,” Baldwin told the Tennesseean as the rematch in Knoxville approached. “You should show some sort of respect for your opponent, especially since you have to play them again. That comment that he made really offended me, offended Coach Stallings and I think offended a lot of kids on my team.”
Richardson downplayed that chatter after Vanderbilt beat UT at Thompson-Boling Arena. Baldwin won round two. But Richardson brought the “tough” topic back up Thursday night. He was reminded some took offense to his opinion last time.
“I don’t care, man,” Richardson said. “I’m not worried about that. If we were the tougher team then I’m going to say it … I should have said ‘tough’ like Allen Iverson said ‘practice.'”
Can’t Make Them All: When the Commodores swished their first two 3-point attempts, it seemed like deja vu. This was the sharpshooting team that drilled 13 of 25 3-pointers against the Vols during the win in Knoxville. But then one rimmed out. At one point six, in a row missed the mark.
“I told our staff before the game, it seems like they’re about 80 percent in their last four games from three,” Tyndall said. “Law of averages, certainly they have to miss a few. Fortunately, tonight, they did.”
The Commodores finished 6 of 26 from deep, or 23.1 percent. That’s their lowest 3-point percentage against an SEC opponent this season. Some perspective: They entered the game with an SEC-best 3-point percentage of 39.3 and had made 50.9 percent through their last four games.
So, was it UT’s defense or simply a return to Earth? A little bit of both, probably.
“We kind of switched up the defense a little bit,” Moore said. “Instead of staying in zone the whole possession, we kind of matched up when they were trying to run us out of man. So, when they threw it to the corner, we were already there. When they penetrated, we slid over. We ended up getting some shot clock violations. We really buckled down and played some good defense there.”
Problem Finally Solved: Vanderbilt sophomore guard Damian Jones was a dominant force for most of the game. He scored 18 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and blocked three shots. It was Jones who put the Commodores ahead 59-47 with 7:18 to play. He had two offensive rebounds and zero points from that point on.
“If you don’t box him out, he’s a big body, and he’s going to get the rebound and dunk it on your head,” Moore said. “The first 30 minutes of the game, he was killing us. We had no answer for him. But, we came together as a team. Coach Tyndall said, ‘You go (box out) Damian Jones, and we will win the game. We boxed him out those last 10 minutes and look, we won the game.”
UT managed to finally contain Jones despite Moore, Reese and Carmichael playing with four fouls.