Arkansas is a pesky team with several talented players. Everytime the Vols wanted to run away, the Hogs battled back to make it interesting. Courtney Fortson certainly did his part, with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 6 assists.
So here we were again, with Arkansas having closed a nine point lead down to 51-48 with more than 14:00 still remaining. When Bruce Pearl saw something he didn't like, he let the referees know...and they hit Pearl with a T.
And then Bruce hulked up. And so did the Vols.
Tennessee went on a 10-0 run following the technical foul, and never let Arkansas get closer than six points the rest of the way. Arkansas was good, but Tennessee was better, and the Vols won the day, 80-73.
It was the first time Tennessee scored in the 80s since the SEC opener against Auburn, and the Vols used several highlight reel dunks along the way. The word of the night was balance, and these numbers have to make Bruce Pearl happy: five players scored in double figures (Hopson 15, Chism 14, Maze 12, Prince 12, Tatum 12...and Goins had 9). The Vols did slow themselves down with 17 turnovers, playing at a faster pace than we've seen in weeks...but Tennessee still shot 54.5% from the floor, were an impressive 14 of 18 (77.8%) at the line, and had 20 assists on 30 made baskets.
The pieces were good: Scotty Hopson scored 15 points for the third straight conference game, a first in his career and his quest for consistency. The seniors all contributed in big ways on Senior Night. And if the Vols can continue to get what they got tonight from Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins off the bench, Tennessee has a chance to do some real damage in March.
This team has now fully worked its way back to pre-arrest form, more or less. What I mean by that is the guys who made plays in the win over #1 Kansas - Skylar McBee, Kenny Hall, Renaldo Woolridge - have once again moved to the backburner (11 total minutes tonight combined, as Woolridge continues to see no action), and the players we originally thought gave us the best chance to win are now stepping up again. The return of Tatum, Goins, and Brian Williams to the full rotation, and the continued spark provided by Steven Pearl, makes Tennessee both deep and dangerous once more.
With the win tonight, the Vols lock up third place in the SEC East, and the date with LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament next week. Before that, they'll have a chance to make Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Florida a perfect 24-0 against the SEC West if they can win in Starkville on Saturday night, a game that will be of great importance to the Bulldogs' tournament hopes, and can also improve the Vols' seeding. Tennessee also locked up their fifth straight 10+ win season in SEC play, to go with Pearl's five year run of 20+ overall wins. It still can't be stressed enough that a five year run of 20+ wins and 10+ conference wins is unheard of around these parts.
Whether this team is peaking right now or not is a question we'll take to Starkville. But the Vols are becoming more consistent. And if they can keep that part going, they'll peak at exactly the right time.