15. 2008: #1 Tennessee 63 Kentucky 60 (Knoxville)
Least favorable schedule ever: in twelve days, the 2008 Vols played at Memphis, at Vanderbilt, vs Kentucky, and at Florida. After beating #1 Memphis the Vols fell at #14 Vanderbilt, and had to regroup in Knoxville. This game was played on a Sunday afternoon and the Vols would officially lose their #1 ranking 24 hours later, but more importantly the loss to Vandy had loosened UT's grip on the SEC title with just three games to play. But the Vols made sure no one would catch them by taking out their greatest rival. This time it was Ernie Grunfeld's number going into the rafters as an incredibly familiar script played out: other than the Jodie Meeks game, every one of Pearl's games against Kentucky in Knoxville saw the Vols race out to a huge lead, and Kentucky come clawing back. This time Tennessee jumped ahead 20-5 in the first eight minutes and still led by fourteen with six to play in the half. But Kentucky cut it to seven at halftime, then took the lead with thirteen minutes to play.
The next ten minutes saw eleven lead changes, a long and incredibly tense run with each team trading one point leads. UK went ahead 57-56 before a Ramar Smith slam gave UT the lead back at the under four. From there the Vols went on a small run, extending the lead to 63-57 before Derrick Jasper hit a three with a minute to go. Kentucky had two chances in the final minute to tie it, but Jasper and Joe Crawford rimmed out threes and the Vols escaped with a hard fought victory.
14. 2011: #13 Tennessee 83 #3 Pittsburgh 76 (Pittsburgh)
The last great moment of the Pearl Era probably should be ranked higher on this list, but will it really be remembered ten years from now? Sadly, probably not - at least not as well as everything after it on this list will be. But at the time, even after winning the NIT over Villanova, this was a jarring display: the Vols destroyed Pitt from the opening tip, leading by as much as twenty-one with just under ten minutes to play. They did it with shooting that gave us a false sense of security: 7 of 11 from the three point line, and 56.3% from the floor overall.
Teams guarded the Vols differently as the season went on, paying less attention to the perimeter the more clear it became that this one was a mirage. But what we also saw here was Scotty Hopson have as strong an individual game against a great team as any player in college basketball had all year: 27 points on 10 of 13 shooting, including 3 of 3 from the arc and a pair of authoritative dunks. If he comes back, we'll still look back on this game as proof that he can do great things. He may not have arrived in this game, but he certainly ascended to the next level.
At the time Duke was the defending champion and still undefeated, and deserved to be number one. But no team had a better argument for number two than Tennessee. The postgame story I wrote is linked below - the last picture of Tennessee Basketball among the nation's elite - and it feels like I wrote it four years ago instead of just four months.
13. 2008 NCAA Second Round - (2) Tennessee 76 (7) Butler 71 (OT)
Who was better - the 2008 team or the 2010 team?
This was the last of the '08 team's 31 victories, a school record. The '10 team will probably always have a warmer place in our hearts, both because they went into uncharted territory and the unique journey they took to get there. But it's also noteworthy that we were really robbed of the opportunity to see either of those two teams at their very best: if you put a cancer-free Chris Lofton on the 2008 team, who knows how much better they could've been. And the 2010 team only saw its best lineup on the floor together for the last ten games of the season once Brian Williams returned to the floor.
Before Butler was cool, they were the victims of a total screwjob by the selection committee: 29-3 coming into the tournament and ranked 10th in the coaches' poll, the Bulldogs were inexplicably handed a seven seed, and the Vols were not only robbed of the one seed they deserved, but handed an incredibly brutal path to the Final Four. This remains the only time two 30+ win teams have met in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Playing J.P. Prince at point guard (who turned in a respectable 9-7-5 performance...with 6 turnovers, of course), the Vols kept trying to run away but the Bulldogs never let them. After jumping Butler 13-2 and then 21-8 to start, the Bulldogs closed within one point before the Vols made the final shot of the half. Second verse same as the first: Tennessee opened the second half on fire and built another ten point lead, but Butler was within four again just four minutes later. Tennessee never let them get the lead, but never put them away either - Butler tied the score at 63-63 with 37 seconds left, and when Prince was called for traveling with four seconds to play, Butler couldn't get off a good shot, sending it to overtime.
In OT Butler took their first lead of the game with 1:47 to play, 68-66. It was short lived: Ramar Smith, Wayne Chism, and then Ramar again got layups on the Vols' next three possessions to give UT the lead right back at 72-68. Butler was fouled with five seconds to play down four, but JaJuan Smith got the rebound off the intentional miss on the second free throw, and buried two of his own to end it. There's a great line from the AP postgame story about Brad Stevens being convinced his teams had Final Four talent.
12. 2007: Tennessee 111 Texas 105 (OT) (Knoxville)
Here's where this list enters the legendary. None of our remaining 12 games will ever be forgotten. And if you hate defense, this might be your favorite UT game of all time.
The conversation about which of Pearl's victories came against the most talented opponent will have to simmer awhile - we're not exactly sure, for instance, just how good all the freshmen from Kentucky's 2010 team are going to end up being. But this Texas team will certainly be in the conversation, considering they started three eventual first round draft picks and one of them was Kevin Durant.
Two days before Christmas, the first half looked like we were going to get blown out of our own building: Texas led 50-35 at the break, and was still up 15 at the under 16. But then the Vols went on one of Pearl's famous runs: 10-0 in the blink of an eye, two threes from Lofton and two scores inside from freshman Duke Crews. From there, the Vols kept getting close only to be turned away by huge shots from Texas: when Chism cut it to three, D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams hit consecutive threes to immediately push it back to nine. When Lofton's free throws cut it to one with six minutes to play, Texas immediately pushed it back to five.
The dagger appeared to come out of the under four timeout: Abrams buried another three with 2:52 to play that put Texas up eight, then Lofton missed a three on the other end. We were too far behind, Texas was too good, learn from it and grow, etc.
On the other end of the floor, Durant jacked a three early in the shot clock and missed. The Vols grabbed the rebound with 2:28 to play, still down eight. From this point on, the Vols had sixteen possessions in regulation and overtime. The Vols would inbound the ball with one second left in regulation and Ramar Smith missed a three-quarter court heave, sending the game to overtime. The Vols scored on every one of their other fifteen possessions.
It started with Duke Crews, who hit a pair of shots around one Texas free throw to make it 87-82 with 1:42 left. Crews then blocked Durant at the rim, which led to a Lofton three over Durant on the other end. When Texas missed a layup, Lofton hit his other, most famous three over Durant from 30+ feet to give the Vols a one point lead. Off a Texas timeout, the Vols forced an OOBTO via a five second count. Ramar Smith hit one free throw, then Durant atoned with a runner with one second left that sent the game to overtime.
In OT, the Vol opened with a Lofton three, a nasty Crews slam, and a CHI$$LE! Texas never got closer than four the rest of the way, and the Vols kept them at a distance at the free throw line the rest of the way. Durant finished with 26. Lofton had 35.
Got a few minutes? Go here and just start watching at about the 41 minute mark. Unbelievable stuff.
11. 2007: Tennessee 76 #17 Memphis 58 (Knoxville)
This one is only higher because of the opponent. And while we're in the middle of a run of Chris Lofton's best games in this countdown, let me say again that though the 35 points on Texas were certainly impressive, they came via 8 of 24 shooting (12 of 13 at the line). So this is, to me, without a doubt Lofton's best game ever.
I moved to Virginia six months earlier, meaning this was the first meaningful home Tennessee Basketball game I'd ever missed in my 20+ years of attendance. I remember pacing the floor in my home here, and calling my sister, who was live from the student section, in the pregame, trying to get a feel for things. She said there was a lot of "Lightning in a bottle" and "We're getting ready to get killed" going around, because the Vols at this point were a one-hit wonder: 2006 was nice, but when we went to Madison Square Garden for the Preseason NIT and lost to Butler and North Carolina by a combined 26 points, it felt like we got exposed. The December 2006 wins over Oklahoma State and Texas we previously covered in our countdown were yet to come. This was an unranked Tennessee team still trying to find itself.
Meanwhile, John Calipari's Memphis Tigers had gotten the best of the Vols the year before. This was basically the same roster from the #1 2008 team, only without Derrick Rose - and obviously, that's an important piece to be without, but a team that started Robert Dozier, Joey Dorsey, Willie Kemp, Antonio Anderson, and Chris Douglas-Roberts was still a force to be reckoned with.
I've talked enough. Just watch this:
That's just the first half - at the end of that highlight, the score is Chris Lofton 21, Memphis 20. He finished with 34 on 12 of 18, 6 of 11 from three, 4 of 4 at the line, along with 5 rebounds. Dane Bradshaw had an 11-9 against his favorite city, and the Vols destroyed Memphis by 18.
From my old site, one of my favorite things I've ever written: Chris Lofton is special.