It's an exhausting thing, being a Tennessee fan. We've seen guns, drugs, and the dismissal of our best basketball player, a senior with a good story gone wrong. We've spent a year defending our coach every single day only to watch him bail on us at the worst possible time. We've made a coaching hire that raised lots of questions, though support for Derek Dooley grows by the minute. And we've seemed a very long way from the best of times...all in the brand new year.
But as today's game with Ole Miss marked the final time Tennessee would play with a six scholarship/three walk-on rotation - Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins are set to return Tuesday night at Alabama - in the midst of everything negative we've experienced, this basketball team has been our one shining moment...every time they played.
The depleted Vols finish their stint at an unbelievable 4-0. They handled Charlotte in a huge trap game. They beat the number one team in the country last weekend. They shrugged off an early 12 point hole against Auburn to win the SEC opener by 21.
And then today, against a solid Ole Miss team, the Vols again had chances to crack. When the Rebels went up early, the Vols could've folded. When the Rebels were still up 12 with 9 minutes to play, we could've just shrugged and said we were out of gas. And no one would've blamed us.
But once again, not only did these nine players have the skill and fortitude to get back in the game when they could've bowed out...they had what it took to win. Today it took overtime and plenty of tense moments, but once again, these Vols found a way. Tennessee has gotten everything done when nothing was expected, and in the worst of times, these Vols have been the best of stories.
If the common theme of resiliency was in play again today, the way the Vols got there was certainly different. Wayne Chism, who has been so huge for Tennessee during this run, was huge today for not just the first half, but the entire game: in 41 minutes, Chism had 26 points and 12 rebounds, and has become $$$ not just from beyond the arc, but at the free throw line: 10 for 10, including several huge makes in overtime. The man is Tennessee's leader.
J.P. Prince continued his love-hate relationship with the fans, doing all the great things to hold up the first part of the equation (13 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) while also turning the ball over six times, including a couple in crucial moments, and a foul that surrendered a four point play in the final minutes of regulation. We love you, J.P. And we'd like to love you more if you'll let us.
Bruce Pearl went off the script by giving the crunch time minutes to Josh Bone and Kenny Hall (before fouling out) instead of Bobby Maze and Renaldo Woolridge. Maze couldn't defend Chris Warren (19 points), but Bone could - Warren was 5 for 9 from beyond the arc before the switch, and 0 for 4 after. Maze's issue may be nothing more than exhaustion, which again, is understandable. But the fact that the Vols still beat a ranked foe despite Maze playing only 19 minutes and Woolridge scoring 0 points.
This has been special...wherever it goes from here, who knows...but this has been special.