Everything we'd seen in Tennessee's first three games of the season was absent in the Paradise Jam semifinals tonight. The Vols scored 83 against Austin Peay, a school record 124 against UNC-Asheville, and 105 against East Carolina. And the Vols won those three games by 29, 75, and 39 points. DePaul was 0-18 in the Big East last year and though they upset Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals, most expected this game to be another cupcake tuneup.
But credit the Blue Demons not only for slowing Tennessee down, but giving the Vols a run for their money into the game's final minute. Everytime it looked like Tennessee was going to run away, including a 12 point lead early in the second half, DePaul worked the lead back down. The Blue Demons even went in front with seven minutes to play, though the Vols instantly took the lead back. DePaul closed Tennessee's lead from six to two in the final minute, but a ticky-tack foul with just four on the shot clock sent Tyler Smith to the line, and the senior knocked down both free throws to give the Vols a four point lead with thirteen seconds left, leading to the 57-53 final.
Tennessee advances to play the winner of #7 Purdue vs. St. Joseph's in the Paradise Jam finals, Monday night at 8:30 PM EST. If Purdue advances as expected, the Vols will find out very quickly if tonight's game was an aberration or a real cause for concern.
As several noted in our live game thread, this performance felt a lot like last season: the Vols relied heavily on their two best players in the post, with Tyler Smith getting 14 points and 8 rebounds, and Wayne Chism leading the charge earlier in the second half to finish with 13 points and 7 rebounds. Other than that, Tennessee really had nothing of merit offensively.
Skylar McBee did have an eight point burst at the end of the first half, but Scotty Hopson went 2 for 11, 0 for 5 from 3, and after picking up two dunks in the game's first five minutes, didn't score again. The Vols shot 37% from the floor and just 3 of 12 from beyond the arc. Thankfully, DePaul wasn't any better, at 35% from the floor and 4 of 17 from three.
Tennessee hasn't won a tournament of any kind since the 2000 Rainbow Classic, and if it's Purdue, it'll be a top ten showdown and a great test for where this team truly is. Hopefully, the Vols' shooting touch will return, because Tennessee is going to need more than just Tyler & Wayne to get it done tomorrow night.