Tennessee Moments of the Decade: BruceBall Arrives at Number One

Is the end of the Fulmer era the most important and significant moment of the last ten years?  Probably.  But we like to end things on a good note.

Was the greatest win of the decade the Vols' 34-32 victory in The Swamp in December 2001?  Yes...for exactly seven days.

Even now, it's impossible for me to look back on that win in Gainesville eight years ago and not tie it to the events that happened the following week in the Georgia Dome.  The win over Florida is and always will be tainted in some way because everything the Vols earned in that victory was stolen away in the SEC Championship Game.

The Vols also lost their next game after the biggest basketball win of the decade.  But the nature of college basketball means that subsequent loss does not tarnish what happened just days before.  When I think of or rewatch this game, I don't think about losing to Vanderbilt three days later.  I think about the story of a basketball program that finally and spectacularly earned its place in the national college basketball conversation.  And there was no better way to do it.  Like the '01 UT-Florida football game, this game received an insane amount of hype in the week leading up to it...and it still delivered.

The moment of greatest joy this decade took place on February 23, 2008 - the night Tennessee Basketball arrived.

The fact that we can even entertain a men's basketball moment as the best of the decade shows how far we've come under Bruce Pearl, and the new life the program has enjoyed in his tenure is a big part of what makes this the top moment on our countdown.  It's the entire journey of Tennessee Basketball under Pearl that deserves recognition, and this night was its (current) apex.

The opponent makes it even more interesting.  The sports moment of the decade for Memphis State in the 90s was its 21-17 win over Tennessee in 1996, the one and only time the Tigers have beaten the Vols.  The 2008 basketball game wasn't about one team trying to beat the other for the first time, nor was it a colossal upset.  This was the two best teams in college basketball, squaring off in a bitter in-state rivalry.

It remains the second most-watched college basketball game in the history of ESPN, undefeated and #1 Memphis hosting the #2 Vols in late February.  Bruce Pearl and John Calipari had split their first two meetings, but it was this matchup that intensified their personal rivalry, which will become even better/worse when the Vols and UK face each other this season.

The Tigers were loaded:  Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier.  But this was Pearl's most dangerous Tennessee team, with seniors Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith joining sophomores Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism.  The Tigers were 26-0, but the Vols were 24-2 and ready to take the number one spot.

The gameplan was to stop Calipari's dribble drive motion offense...but after an early JaJuan Smith three, the Tigers went off the script and started draining threes of their own.

The first ten minutes of this game were played in a state of constant hyperventilation.  Memphis built leads of 17-11 and 31-24 while knocking down five of their first eight threes.  But each time the Tigers tried to pull away, JaJuan Smith hit a three to keep Tennessee close.  The Vols got back within one at halftime.

Memphis kept shooting in the second half, but went increasingly cold:  the 5 of 8 start turned into an 8 of 27 finish.  Meanwhile, Tennessee was carried by three different players in the second half.  First, it was Wayne Chism, who dropped two second half threes to push Tennessee ahead.  Then it was JP Prince, another West Tennessee native, who gave the Vols 13 points off the bench, including three critical scores at the hole to push the UT lead to seven.

Memphis battled back down the stretch behind Rose, who was as good as we thought he would be, leading all scorers with 23 points.  The Tigers took a 61-58 lead with 2:28 to play...and wouldn't make another shot.  From there, Tyler Smith took over.

He hit a driving shot to pull the Vols within one.  Then after a lengthy possession for Memphis with two offensive rebounds that reset the shot clock, the Tigers committed a traveling violation on their third rebound attempt, and the Vols got it back.  Tennessee went right back to Tyler Smith, who hit a great turnaround jumper with contact with :28 to play to put the Vols in front 62-61.

Memphis missed on the other end, and then the Vols did what John Calipari teams cannot:  hit free throws.  JP Prince hit two to put the Vols up 64-61.  Derrick Rose was fouled and hit the first, missing the second intentionally, but Chris Lofton got the rebound.  And when Lofton hit his two, the Vols were up four, and the deed was done.  Memphis shot 8 of 17 at the line, and the Vols knocked off Tiger High 66-62 to become the number one team in the nation.

Though Vanderbilt beat Tennessee three days later, the Vols put the finishing touches on their first outright SEC Championship since 1967 the following week.  The Vols would go on to make their second consecutive and third ever Sweet 16 as a two seed.  The 31-5 final record for this team makes 2007-08 the greatest season in program history, with the win over Memphis going down as arguably the program's greatest victory.  When you factor in Chris Lofton's secret battle with cancer during this season, it's an even more incredible story.

Winning championships in women's basketball is tradition.  The football team had their ups and downs in the last ten years, and the changing of the guard from Fulmer to Kiffin was certainly a landmark event.  But what Bruce Pearl and Tennessee Basketball have done this decade is something we've never seen before.  The Vols were an afterthought in 2005.  And by 2008, Pearl had made them the number one team in the country.  The rise of Tennessee Basketball is the story of the decade.  And as the Vols and Tigers get set to play again at the FedEx Forum, we hope that story continues to move forward.

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