KNOXVILLE — Brandon Lopez quickly went from the end of Tennessee's bench to the last-second crosshairs of Vanderbilt.
The walk-on point guard's first action in five games allowed the Volunteers to escape their visiting in-state rivals.
Kedren Johnson missed a driving shot and two Commodores were unable to tip in the rebound as Tennessee survived a last-second opposing possession for the second time in four days in Tuesday night's 58-57 Southeastern Conference win at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I'm not sure," guard Josh Richardson replied when asked where Tennessee would've been without Lopez's three key second-half assists and final-play defense. "He definitely brought a whole lot of energy to the game. He always does that.
"We know we can lean on him if he comes in and if we need him to do something big for us."
Tennessee (11-8, 3-4) gave away double-digit leads in each half and nearly gave away the win when three missed free throws in the final minute gave Vanderbilt the game's final possession with 19.8 seconds on the clock.
After a series of screens, Johnson, a former star at Marshall County High School in Lewisburg, Tenn., got the ball at the top of the key with Lopez guarding him.
"It's like, 'Here it is,'" said Lopez, who played at Austin-East in Knoxville. "I've been playing Kedren maybe since the spring of my eighth-grade year. We mainly just played against each other at camps and stuff like that."
As he did while carving up the Vols for 14 second-half points, Johnson drove toward the basket as Lopez forced him to take an off-balance short jumper falling to his left, and Vanderbilt's James Siakam and Kevin Bright couldn't tap in the loose rebound.
"You hadn't seen [Lopez] a lot, [but] he's not a bad on-ball defender," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "He can keep you in front of him. I thought we had the right personnel in there to get a stop.
"For us, it's just forcing those guys to make a play off the bounce, and Brandon did a good job keeping [Johnson] in front, forcing him over the top and forcing him to make a tough shot."
Fresh off a 15-point, 18-rebound performance against Alabama, Jarnell stokes scored seven quick points, and Tennessee's powerful forward imposed his will on the glass with five impressive rebounds as the Vols raced out to a 12-0 lead and led 19-5 midway through the first half before the Commodores (8-11, 2-5) took a brief lead with an 18-3 run.
Vanderbilt, which has struggled to replace first-round NBA draft picks John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli this season, pulled the trick again in the second half.
Lopez grabbed a rebound and dished to Stokes for a layup before finding Skylar McBee in the corner for a 3-pointer, and though leading scorer Jordan McRae managed just seven points on 2-of-10 shooting, Tennessee led 52-41.
After the Commodores answered with a tying 11-0 run, Lopez came off a screen and dished to a rolling Stokes, who finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, for a tiebreaking three-point play with four minutes remaining.
"He's a good point guard because he knows the plays," Martin said. "Now Jordan's in his traditional spot as a 2 guard [and] Josh is where he needs to be, so now you get into the flow of your offense. He knows where he's supposed to be, and it's so tough for Jordan to be a 2 guard for two years and all of a sudden, 'I've got to run the point and I've got know all these plays.'
"Brandon knows what's going on at that position, but it's also a credit to Brandon, who hadn't played in a while [and is] not really a part of lot of practice because it's five-on-five. He's locked in and he's a very intelligent young man. I knew he'd be ready to play."
It was good for Tennessee that Lopez was ready, especially on the last play.
"I thought we really got exactly what we wanted [on the final play]," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We were absolutely OK with a shot toward the end of the clock and a chance at a tip. It worked out perfectly with the exception of the ball going in the basket.
"Sometimes a game comes down to whether a ball goes in the basket or not."
And Tennessee's glad it didn't -- again.
"I definitely think we're starting to turn the corner," Stokes said. "I feel like a lot of games we gave up. We were close to giving one up these last two games, but thank God things went in our favor this time."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...