At the crossroads of our season, with a chance to join the rest of the SEC East in an extremely tight race or a chance to live life on the bubble, the Vols played really well for 39.5 minutes. As we mentioned after our first meeting, Florida is a really good basketball team, and in other years there would be no shame in losing a close game against them...especially in Gainesville.
But losses to teams that had no business beating us have denied us that grace, and when combined with the familiar heartbreak of the way Tennessee went down today...this one hurts. More than most.
The opportunities Tennessee gave away at the free throw line helped the Gators have a chance to win in the end again. The Vols only got to the line ten times overall, though some of that is tempered by the fact that UT shot 49.0% from the floor. Still, down one in the final minute the Vols used their two best offensive plays - get the ball to Scotty Hopson and get an offensive rebound - to take the lead 60-59. Some of the Vols' best moments, even going back to the Ohio State game last year, have been tip-ins by Brian Williams. Those two were huge today - Hopson with 22, and the J.P. Prince-like numbers that make 6 turnovers more acceptable: 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals. Williams had 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 steals despite getting banged up throughout.
When Florida couldn't convert on the other end, Cameron Tatum was fouled with 25.5 seconds left, shooting one and one. It felt like a game Tennessee was going to win, and frankly, one they deserved to win.
But Tatum clanged the front end, leaving the Vols at an anemic 40% - 4 of 10 - at the line for the game. This one will go in the file with the 2007 Sweet 16 loss to Ohio State: two of the most difficult losses Bruce Pearl has seen, both which could've been avoided by shooting even a mediocre percentage at the stripe.
Tatum's miss led to Erving Walker shredding the Vol defense on the other end, getting inside too easily to give Florida a 61-60 lead. There were still 14 seconds left. There were 10 seconds left when Melvin Goins got the ball across the timeline. Bruce Pearl didn't use one of his two remaining timeouts.
From there, we replayed the same script from many of our losses this year. And our failure to learn cost this team the win they could've had tonight, shut the door on the SEC East, and sends us straight to the bubble.
Down one with 10 seconds left and two timeouts, Melvin Goins dribbled the clock down to the final seconds, then fired up a long three. Scotty Hopson and his 22 points never saw it. Tobias Harris never touched it. The Vols gave themselves no opportunity to get an offensive rebound. And UT didn't engage contact in hopes of getting to the line.
It was as much as one could fail on the final possession without turning it over: one player dribbling it out and taking a deep three when you need only one to tie and two to win, while your best players never get a chance to even touch it.
And we've seen it over and over and over and over again this year.
That's one over for every time we've screwed it up:
- Charlotte: up one shooting one-and-one with 20 seconds left. Melvin Goins missed the front end, Charlotte got the rebound and got a layup, and without calling timeout and down only one, Cameron Tatum missed a three at the buzzer. Vols lose by 1.
- USC: Very next game, a USC miss with 11 seconds to play was rebounded by Tatum, who got the ball across halfcourt and called timeout with 4 seconds on the clock. Down only one, the Vols settled for a Tobias Harris three that missed. Vols lose by 1.
- Alabama: At the end of regulation, Bama turned it over with 19 seconds left in a tie game. The Vols again called timeout here. But the Vols ended up taking a deep three from Melvin Goins, which missed and sent the game to overtime. Vols lose by 5 in OT.
- Tonight: Like Charlotte, missed the front end of a one-and-one, gave up a layup, took a deep three down only one. Vols lose by 1.
In the postgame, Pearl said the Vols did not at all run the play that was designed - getting the ball to Hopson or Tatum and letting them go to the hole - and that things got messed up from the beginning because the ball was inbounded to Tatum instead of Goins. While it's comforting to know that Goins' shot wasn't what Pearl wanted, it's still excruciatingly frustrating to have four games where you're tied or down one, and you have plenty of time to get a good shot, and you end up taking four deep threes for four losses.
There were so many good things about Tennessee's effort and play tonight that I fear are going to be forgotten, all thrown away in the final 25.5 seconds. And we cannot forget that Florida deserves credit - the Gators have overtime wins over Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia, plus a one point win over the Vols today and a two point win over Kentucky. That's how thin the margin of error is in the East this year...and Florida deserves credit for always doing what they have to do to come out on the right side.
The Vols came out the right way against Vanderbilt and Georgia, and have come out the wrong way against Florida twice. But moments like this are where the month of December comes back to haunt: even if the Vols couldn't win the division, had we taken care of business against even a couple of the Oakland, Charlotte, USC, Charleston group, this would be less of an issue. But since we didn't, we're now 15-10.
15-10 and 5-5 in the SEC is a bubble team. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
We lost some things today that we won't get back, but the season isn't over. I always think it's important to emphasize winning championships in the regular season, because 67 of 68 teams will lose in the tournament. It's nice to have something stable to point to if things get screwed up in one game in the tournament, so you can't unfairly label your whole season a failure based on the outcome of one game. We won't be taking home any of those this year.
But it's also true that the Vols can still make the tournament, and can still play well there. Good things can still happen with this team. With the exception of the Kentucky game, the Vols have played well against every good team they've seen, even in losses at UConn and Florida. I have no doubt that we'd play well against a higher seed in the tournament...it's just our own little way.
But the greatest truth we all need to embrace right now is that we're not in yet.
The schedule will get more friendly, and South Carolina is the one East team you want to see after this one on Wednesday. This was the crossroads, and we took a wrong turn - everyone associated with Tennessee, from Bruce Pearl in the postgame to the players' body language walking off the floor to the beat writers to all of us knows that this one is going to take time to get over. The Vols should be able to handle Carolina in Knoxville, but if we're not over yet it'll get tight like the rest of them. Then comes Georgia for what could be a bubble elimination game depending on how some other things go.
The Vols will still be solid in RPI (30) and SOS (3), but reality is our marquee wins took place on November 26 and December 11, and Tennessee is 8-10 since then. As Pat Forde mentioned before this game, the Vols' beauty is in the eye of the beholder - what if the selection committee doesn't look at the entire body of work but uses human nature and emphasizes which teams are the best right now? How much credit will we actually get for losing two overtime games and four others on the last possession?
The Vols were 25.5 seconds away from their best tonight, but it wasn't enough in the end, again. The narrative of the season now changes, and perhaps that will be enough by itself to allow this team to refocus between now and Wednesday, and do what we need to do. The season isn't over, and good basketball can still take this team where it wants to go in March.
But good basketball isn't good basketball without a good finish. We have to learn how to get it right at the end of the game, or we may not even get the chance to play basketball that matters in March.
They're all important from here.