Referees are human beings, which is what people say when they're feeling especially kind after a bad call. But I've never seen their humanity on display the way it was tonight. Midway through the first half, the ESPNU announce team mentioned that John Adams - not the KNS version (though he was probably there too), but the National Coordinator of Basketball Officiating version - was in attendance. That explained everything.
If Mr. Adams was in there to conduct a performance review, his crew tonight gets an A+ in the letter of the law and an F- in its spirit. Everything was a foul. It wasn't one bad call, it was 59 total calls. They were equal opportunity whistleblowers: Belmont had 32, including three "intentional" fouls in the final minute, and the Vols had 27. A basketball game that tipped off at 9:30 ended minutes before midnight.
The good news is, the Vols picked the right night to prove they've learned how to shoot free throws after all.
After shooting 13 of 26 from the stripe in an exhibition loss to Indianapolis, the Vols went a stunning 32 of 39 tonight, 82.1%. It kept Tennessee in front early on, as Belmont missed the front end of several one-and-ones and thus shot eleven fewer free throws. When the Vols hit a quick burst to turn an eight point game into a seventeen point lead at 71-54, we all thought it was over.
Credit Belmont - a team the Vols will see again in December - for battling back, and doing it not just with three point shooting, but smart defense that preyed on a young UT team: the Vols had 27 fouls and 27 turnovers. Scotty Hopson and Kenny Hall each had five, and Melvin Goins added four before going down with a hip injury. That called freshman Trae Golden into action in crunch time, where he also committed a key turnover that gave Belmont a chance to take the lead.
But Golden would redeem himself. After Cameron Tatum (14 points, 2 of 3 from the arc) knocked down two, Golden went to the line to make it a two possession game...and knocked them both down. Fellow freshman Tobias Harris, who had the first of what will probably/hopefully be several "oh by the way" performances with 18 points and 7 rebounds, knocked down two more to ice it. The Vols survive and advance, in spite of their sloppy play, Belmont's late run, and the neverending whistle. There are important lessons to be learned here, but those lessons are always easier to learn when you still find a way to win...and those late free throws, especially for Golden, who may have to lead the way at point if Goins can't play on Wednesday, can be especially big in building confidence.
It's a quick turnaround - the Vols get Missouri State, winner goes to Madison Square Garden, Wednesday night at 7:00 PM. Let's hope John Adams is somewhere else when it happens.