We've seen for a while now that when the Vols get the best from their three best players - Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and JP Prince - they can be very tough to beat, and when that best is combined with just one player getting hot from outside, Tennessee can play with anybody.
Tonight, Tennessee shot 4 of 24 from behind the arc, 16.7%.
And they won by 24 points.
How did that happen, against a team that just beat them on their own home floor just five days earlier?
The big three did their thing - Tyler with 22 points and 6 rebounds, Wayne with 15 points and 7 rebounds, and JP Everywhere with 14 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks. And while no one was hot from outside, clearly - especially Scott Hopson, 1 of 7 - the Vols got more big minutes from Brian Williams inside, and they made the two threes they had to make:
The first, Hopson's only of the night, started the Vols off right to a 5-0 lead and set the tone and tempo. The Vols would run out to a 25-11 lead in the game's first eight minutes, and hold an 11 point lead at the half.
The second was by Bobby Maze, who started the second half the same way Hopson began the first, knocking down a three that ignited a 19-4 run to open the final twenty minutes, and quickly put Alabama away.
In between, the Vols outhustled and outplayed an Alabama team that looked fatigued at several junctures: the Vols outrebounded Bama 40-30, racked up 20 assists to Bama's 4, and - special jinx alert! - shot 80% from the free throw line for only the fourth time this season, 12 of 15 and 8 for 8 to start the game.
The Vols dominated in the paint and on the fast break, and simply and literally ran away from Alabama. Threes were a luxury that never paid off, but it didn't matter. By the time Alabama moved into their "we know you can't shoot" 2-3 pack-in zone, Tennessee was too far ahead.
The Vols looked great in a 24 point win where they shot 17% from behind the arc. So yeah, we could speculate on just how good we could be if we are knocking down some of those shots...or we could take comfort in the fact that we've got more proof now that even when we're ice cold from downtown and the other team is packing it in...we can still be very good.
The Vols are still hovering around a 6 seed in most bracket projections, but could go higher if they win this tournament. They'll go to the semifinals for the second straight year after a seventeen year absence before that, playing either Florida or Auburn (in a mere 17 hours - 3:15 EDT on Saturday), who will both be playing for their NCAA Tournament lives. If you're following live tonight, there's an open thread at Track Em Tigers.
This team is still finding its best basketball, and hopefully they'll continue to find it more each night from here. Tennessee is very capable of being very good...even when we're not shooting our usual 30% from three. Let's see how much farther we can make this work...