The primary story here is that the SEC will indeed get at least three teams in, as Mississippi State knocks off Tennessee 64-61 to win the SEC Tournament, picking up their fourth win in as many days, and securing an automatic bid. This means someone else's bubble has burst, as the Bulldogs steal a bid. Hats off to Rick Stansbury and his club for playing four days of consistently good basketball in Tampa.
Both teams showed signs of fatigue and signs of grit, answering each other's threes on several occasions in the second half, and playing the game to a 61-60 score when Wayne Chism hit a three with :56 left to pull the Vols within one. The largest lead of the night had been Mississippi State by seven (and that was in the first five minutes) - these teams were tired together and they played to the finish together.
That finish produces the secondary story - from my perspective, it's not at all that Tennessee got screwed by the officiating. It's that the officiating - which seemed inconsistent throughout the day - became THE story. If the job of the referee is to disappear, this was the opposite.
In a conference tournament championship game that's at one point with a minute to play, we saw eight possessions in fifty-six seconds...and one shot attempt, at the buzzer. There were too many whistles to allow either team any time to shoot...and several of the whistles were questionable.
After Chism's three, here are the game's final possessions in order:
(EDIT: So, I just saw where Joel and I apparently had the exact same reaction to this game in terms of how to write about it, his eight minutes before mine. I didn't change what I had originally said in an effort to show how two of us can independently see the exact same problems with the officiating and choose to address them in the exact same way.
(Slightly different, I'll also say again that I think the story here is LESS "Tennessee got screwed!", and MORE "those referees took control of the game" - I think there were four bad calls in the final minute, two against each team.)
- Wayne Chism is called for a blocking foul on Barry Stewart. Replays show zero contact and Stewart simply falling down. Stewart hits one of two free throws to put State up 62-60.
- Tennessee doesn't like the look they're getting from State, calls timeout, and on the inbounds play, JP Prince appears to take three steps before the ball hits the floor or contact is made. The refs call a foul on State.
- Prince hits the first free throw, misses the second but the ball goes out of bounds off State on the rebound.
- Standing less than a foot from the referee, Wayne Chism clearly calls for a timeout before the ref's arm reaches the fifth motion on a five second count. The referee awards the ball to Mississippi State.
- On the ensuing inbouds, State throws into a double team in the corner. There is contact but no foul is called, the player steps out of bounds and the refs award the ball back to Tennessee.
- Mississippi State steals the inbounds pass, Tennessee fouls, and State hits both free throws to go up 64-61.
- The Vols miss a three at the buzzer
There were four highly questionable calls in the last fifty-six seconds, two against each team. Whichever team lost this game was going to have complaints, and no game should come to its finish under these circumstances, let alone the SEC Tournament Championship.
So both teams go on to next week, and will find their seeding out in a couple of hours. State will be riding the wave of six straight wins, while the Vols are cooled off after a five of six run to get them to this point. Both teams and coaching staffs face the task of getting their teams ready off the heels of this wild tournament and experience. And I think both will be ready.
The game today was certainly both hard fought and memorable. The Vols still have not won the SEC Tournament since 1979, though today's appearance was their first on Sunday since 1991.
And the good news here is that once those brackets go up in two hours, all of this is over...and the real game begins.