Much like Memphis in Maui, the Vols fell behind in the first half against Oakland in Rochester. The Golden Grizzlies made a ton of big shots and played with a ton of confidence in building a 14 point first half lead, which the Vols worked hard to battle back to seven.
Then the entire second half was an exercise in frustration. After Trae Golden made an immediate three to cut the lead to four, Oakland went back up six on a Travis Bader jumper. The next eleven minutes were all played with Oakland holding a lead of between five and ten points. When Kenny Hall scored to finally cut the lead to three with 8:32 to play, Reggie Hamilton responded with five straight points. And there it stayed the rest of the way, Oakland leading by no more than ten but no less than five for the remainder of the game. Every time the Vols pushed up the hill and got close, Oakland rolled them right back down. Never too far out of it for Tennessee to panic, never close enough for Oakland to panic.
And so an incredibly even second half (50-49 Oakland) was finished off by an incredible display of free throw shooting from the home team: 28 of 31, 90.3%, including 15 of 15 from their leading scorer Hamilton, who had 35 tonight. Tennessee was led by Jordan McRae's encouraging 25 and a solid performance by Cameron Tatum with 19, but it was never enough to get the lead, and the Grizzlies won by eight.
There were several moments in the second half where the Vols had their chances, including a particularly frustrating stretch with Oakland leading 54-49. The Vols stole the ball on consecutive possessions, only to have Wes Washpun miss a dunk and Jeronne Maymon keep it himself on a three-on-one and miss a layup. Trae Golden turned it over the following possession, then another point of emphasis emerged: Oakland's offensive rebounds, including one here by Ryan Bass to put them back up six. In that stretch between the twelve and eleven minute mark, the Vols had four chances to get closer than five but could not.
It was a Corey Petros offensive rebound that allowed Oakland to go back in front after the Vols cut it to three with 8:32 to play. And after a Cam Tatum three got it back to five with 3:02 to go, Petros and Drew Valentine both got offensive rebounds that led to a pair of free throws. Valentine got another one on the next possession that led to more free throws, and that was basically that.
It was an obvious trap game and one these inexperienced Vols may not have been mature enough to handle. But the rebounds were alarming - Oakland finished +11 despite the absence of their two best post players from last season - and the fact that this team lost by double digits to Alabama (who I know is good) and Arkansas (who I think might be) doesn't help.
Maui may have been a false alarm, and the NCAA Tournament is still a very, very long way away, only attainable one game at a time. We'll learn a lot more about this team at home on Saturday against Pittsburgh. I can understand why Tennessee lost to what I hope becomes the three-time Summit League Champions...but it goes down as another one in the loss column for a team that most of us believe will need wins on Selection Sunday.
Again, were we too optimistic or too hopeful to think the Vols could get there after Maui? Ask me again after Saturday. The Vols get four days between games and no additional travel, and that should help. This team will continue to mature, but if they're going to get where they want to go, they have to do so quick enough to start learning lessons in victories and not just defeats.