For ten minutes, the Vols played as poorly as they can possibly play. For the next thirty minutes, Scotty Hopson played better than he has ever played. But it wasn't quite enough to make up the difference, as the Dawgs finally made the plays in the final minutes against a good team.
One of the most important moments in this game came with 11:50 to play. The Vols had come all the way back from a 15 point first half deficit to tie the game 43-43, and then Melvin Goins got a steal and a thunderous dunk...and a technical foul for hanging on the rim.
The dunk gave the Vols a 45-43 lead, but the technical ended a 7-0 run with the Dawgs absolutely on the ropes. Everything about their body language suggested they were thinking about all the other huge leads they had blown in the last three weeks, and Thompson-Boling Arena was ready to bury them. But the T silenced the fury. Tobias Harris put Tennessee up 48-45 a few minutes later, but Georgia retook the lead at the under eight timeout, and the Vols never got it back.
The Dawgs found their way at the free throw line, not just in the final minute but padding the lead to that point. Georgia shot 17 of 24 at the line, 70.8%. Meanwhile Tennessee struggled again at just 9 of 15, 60.0%. Georgia made just enough to stay in front in the final eight minutes, earning a hard-fought road win that will certainly boost their NCAA Tournament resume.
Meanwhile, Tennessee falls to 16-11, 6-6 in the SEC. The Vols would have to win out to avoid having the most regular season losses of any of Pearl's teams here. Tennessee's RPI and SOS will still be very high...but the Vols are also just 9-11 since the win at Pittsburgh, and just 1-3 since Bruce Pearl returned to the bench.
And it's going to get tense around here.
We have to acknowledge Scotty Hopson's play. In that opening stretch, Georgia built a 22-7 lead in the first eleven minutes. Hopson hit his first shot with 9:03 left in the first half. So the fact that he finished with a career high 32 points is even more incredible.
We've been looking for his breakthrough performance since he arrived on campus, and it's unfortunate that it's come here: 20+ points in the last three games, and the Vols lost two of them. He's averaged 25.6 points against Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia, and had only three turnovers today.
The second half today was the first time Hopson demanded your attention on every possession. His run of 10 points in the first 7 minutes of the second half was the first time I've followed a player wherever he was on the floor since the days of Chris Lofton. Like the Pittsburgh game, Hopson did it from everywhere: highlight reel dunks, impressive spin moves to the basket, and jump shots from two and three. He was the complete package today, and deserved his career high.
Tennessee clearly made an effort to run their offense through their two best players: Hopson had 32 on 12 of 19, and Tobias Harris added 18 on 7 of 17. (It's also worth noting that while the Vols bothered Trey Thompkins again (4 of 13 in Athens, 4 of 14 today), this time they did not bother Jeremy Price, who had 20 on 8 of 9 and 4 of 4 at the line, many of those at Tobias' expense.)
When those two take 36 shots, it's certainly going to limit the opportunities for everyone else. But absolutely no one else was able to capitalize on any opportunities, which is the biggest reason the Vols got beat. Cameron Tatum was 1 of 5, 1 of 4 from the arc, for three points. No other Vol scored more than two. No one other than Scotty and Tobias shot a free throw.
In particular, Melvin Goins often found penetration but didn't finish, going 1 of 7 with the dunk and the technical. And Brian Williams had five assists - which is nice - but you don't want the big guy to lead the team in that stat, and you want him to finish for himself more than just once.
If the Vols get anything from anyone else, they win.
I like running that much of the offense through your two best players, especially when no one else on the team has been consistent enough to merit consistent looks. But Tennessee won't beat anyone with just two players, no matter how well they play.
And we've got to beat someone to get in the dance.
The Vols now go to Nashville to play one of the league's hottest teams. Vanderbilt is at Auburn this afternoon, which should become their fifth win in a row. And they will no doubt want revenge for blowing a 17 point lead in Knoxville last month.
If the Vols lose in Memorial - an outcome Vegas will predict - Tennessee will be 16-12, 6-7 in the SEC. Nothing about those numbers suggests an NCAA Tournament team.
Will there still be time to save it? They'd need to close really strong - beating Mississippi State and South Carolina is one thing, but Kentucky awaits in the final game of the regular season. And Tennessee's beauty will continue to be in the eye of the beholder - if you like RPI and SOS, you like the Vols. If you ask "what have you done for me lately?", the Vols come up short right now.
Beating Vanderbilt would allow all of us to step back from the ledge. If we don't, we're going to live there until Selection Sunday, period.
This was a big win for Georgia. And now it's going to require a big win somewhere else from Tennessee.