This is what we pictured when Cuonzo Martin came to Knoxville.
It was never supposed to be this soon, never supposed to be as important as it was tonight. But here was Tennessee, down 15 in the first half and 11 at halftime, staging a comeback using defense. Not hot three point shooting, not turnovers and fast break points, but simply lock-it-down, shut-it-down defense on every possession. LSU started the game impossibly hot, shooting 63.2% from the floor as they built their 15 point lead. But in the second half the Tigers made just nine shots, and made just two in the final eight minutes. LSU didn't score at all in regulation after Anthony Hickey's three pointer gave them a 60-57 lead with 3:37 to go. And they didn't score from the field again until 1:04 remained in overtime.
Tennessee's excellent defense allowed their offense to once again do just enough...and just enough has never felt better. There is no doubt Tennessee can play better, but there's also no doubt that the only other SEC team to win in this building is Kentucky. LSU played tough defense and will be a tough out for any team in the SEC Tournament. But Tennessee just kept coming. The Vols closed within four in the first three minutes of the second half, capped off by a three point play from Cameron Tatum. LSU did enough to stay in front, but the Vols kept fighting. Jeronne Maymon did the dirty work in the first part of the second half, knocking down five free throws and hitting a pair of shots that finally closed the Vols within two at 45-43 with 10:46 to play. But LSU got a bucket from Storm Warren and a big three from Anthony Hickey to push the lead back to seven. Free throws from Trae Golden and Jeronne Maymon pulled the Vols back to 52-47.
Then it was Jarnell Stokes' turn.
Tennessee's freshman had been solid but quiet since his 16 point 12 rebound performance in the win over UConn. Not tonight. Stokes scored eight points in less than four minutes, ending with a jumper above the free throw line that he buried to finally tie the game at 57-57 with 3:57 to play. He was an unbelievable 9 of 10 on the night for 18 points to go with 7 rebounds...and when LSU worked to take him away down the stretch, others stepped up.
It was Maymon again who pulled the Vols within one after another Hickey three (hats off to that kid). Then Maymon hit one free throw to tie the game at 60-60 with 2:16 to play. And then it became a stalemate: both defenses stepped up in the final two minutes, no points were scored, and after a Justin Hamilton block LSU missed the game winner to send things to overtime.
In OT, a pair of unlikely faces made the difference. Cameron Tatum started it with a three off the tip to give Tennessee, unbelievably, their first lead of the night. Deadlocked again after three LSU free throws, it was Trae Golden who made the biggest play of the night on an and-one drive with 1:27 to play. At that point, Golden was 1 for 8 with 5 points and 6 turnovers, the worst game he had played all year. But he was exactly who the Vols needed him to be down the stretch.
At 66-65 after an LSU basket, the Vols needed one more score...and it was Tatum again who delivered, slashing into the lane and just getting a shot off that found the bottom of the net for a 68-65 lead with 34 seconds to play. And from there, Tennessee's defense again did the trick, and Golden went 6 for 6 at the line to seal the deal...and the Vols win in Baton Rouge, 74-69.
LSU deserves a ton of credit for an incredibly hard fought game. But Tennessee took their best punches in the first half and battled their way back in the second. The Vols can play better, and are still limited on the offensive end and prone to dry spells. But once again, with their defense they create the opportunity to win anyway. And for a team whose biggest victories had come in two blowouts over Florida and a three point win over UConn that featured a late Huskies run, this was the first time Tennessee had a chance to make the plays at the end of the game to win...and did.
In a building where only Kentucky had won in league play, the Vols shot 51.0% from the floor, 5 of 9 from the arc, and 19 of 22 from the free throw line. And every point mattered, none more than the 32 combined from Stokes and Maymon inside.
I'm so proud of this team and unbelievably happy with the job Cuonzo Martin is doing. You could tell how much he wanted tonight too: more talkative with the referees, more animated on the sideline, and ditching the jacket in overtime. And he got what he came for. I didn't see the fist pump, but I imagine it was there. I'd also imagine this is the win he's most proud of, and rightfully so. I never, ever expected it to be this good this fast, and never expected to feel so good about a team that just followed the most successful run in program history.
But this team's run isn't over yet.
Tennessee's RPI goes up to 81 as of this writing tonight. But the Vols have one more big chance to improve their lot, as Vanderbilt and their #21 RPI ranking will come into Knoxville on Saturday afternoon. And if Kentucky finishes their quest for perfection at 16-0 by beating Florida on Sunday, the winner of the Tennessee/Vanderbilt game will finish second in the SEC.
The Vols should feel much safer about the NIT, and we can still have the conversation about the NCAA Tournament. But the destiny we do control is in New Orleans, and Tennessee has a chance to put themselves in an incredible position in that bracket with a win on Saturday on Senior Day. You didn't have to wait long for a huge showdown game to come back to Thompson-Boling Arena after Bruce Pearl: it's here on Saturday. And the place will be rocking.
Cuonzo Martin deserves all the credit. This win tonight was the defining moment of his team, which dug deep and found a way to win on the road against a good team when it mattered most. I hate when we play these late games like this because I'm so excited I'm never going to get to sleep. And man, that's a great feeling. Thanks for that, Coach Martin.
Let's get Vanderbilt.