This was war.
So, here's the part about the blown call in overtime. I put it first not because it was the primary reason we lost, but to get it out of the way. With Ole Miss leading 74-72 with 14.5 seconds left in overtime, an inbounds pass was deflected by Josh Richardson off the chin of Terrance Henry and out of bounds. This was clear, and done right in front of the referee, who awarded the ball to Ole Miss. And an officiating crew that earlier went to the monitors on a block/charge play and returned with a double foul call - the ultimate bailout - didn't go back to the monitors or discuss the play on the game's most crucial possession.
But the fact that it was the game's most crucial possession was Tennessee's responsibility: the Vols had their chances in this game and didn't execute on the offensive end at the end or regulation or, for the first time in forever, on the defensive end in overtime, a place we were fortunate to be in the first place. So it's both right and easy to blame the refs right now, but it's our fault for being in that position in the first place, and ultimately Tennessee leaves New Orleans with a loss to Ole Miss that will almost certainly kill their NCAA Tournament hopes.
The defense was strong throughout regulation, holding the Rebels to 61 points. The fact that Tennessee was in the game at all while shooting 28.1% from the floor is a testament to our strong defensive performance as usual. Neither team led by more than six throughout regulation in a physical battle that saw both teams play incredibly hard. While Ole Miss won the battle in the paint from the floor, Tennessee kept getting to the free throw line (25 of 33) to stay in it. Skylar McBee buried a three with 4:52 to play to put the Vols up 54-53, and Trae Golden added a runner with 4:06 to go that put the Vols up three.
And then our offense fell apart.
In the four minutes following Golden's runner, Tennessee shot five threes in a row and missed them all. I don't know if the Vols didn't know how to play with a small lead in the final minutes, something we haven't really done much. I don't know if the moment got too big, or if the Ole Miss post defense had been causing too many problems for us to go in there again (though if so, we forgot that we shot 33 free throws). But every possession involved a lot of standing around, running down the shot clock, and then missing a three.
Meanwhile, credit Ole Miss for continuing to attack. The Vols had no defensive answer for Terrance Henry at any point, who hit an and-one to put Ole Miss up 58-56, then hit two free throws with nine seconds left to push the lead back to three.
The sixth three in a row for Tennessee, however, was much more successful. Skylar McBee banked in a three with two seconds left that sent the game to overtime. This loss is even more unfortunate because it will rob McBee of what would've been one of the biggest shots in Tennessee Basketball history had the Vols won the game and made the NCAA Tournament.
Then in overtime, Jarnell Stokes scored immediately to put the Vols up 63-61, and momentum was wearing orange...for about ten seconds. Credit Nick Williams and Jarvis Summers for knocking down jumpers on the Rebels' first two overtime possessions. Then when Jeronne Maymon fouled out after a UT miss on the next possession, the Vols were really in trouble, and it showed: without his presence on the glass (17 rebounds), the Rebels got scores off of offensive rebounds on their next two possessions. Tennessee made a run late thanks to two more threes from Skylar McBee - next person who says, "All he does is shoot open threes that I could make" is getting punched in the face - but the worst free throw shooting team in the league found enough of their touch late, knocking down five of their last eight to stay in front. Two of those, of course, came after the blown call with 14 seconds left...but alas, Ole Miss played hard and got the win for it, 77-72.
Consider that outside of McBee, Tennessee scored seven points in the last nine minutes of play, and only Stokes made a shot from the field. It was a tremendous display from McBee, but the Vol offense really failed to get any other good looks down the stretch, and some of Skylar's looks weren't even that good. Tennessee failed to execute at the end of the game, and so did the refs, but you can't say the same about Ole Miss. With Maymon fouling out, the Rebels shot 5 of 7 in overtime.
Trae Golden led Tennessee with 21 points, McBee hit five threes for 15, and Cameron Tatum was big in the first half and finished with 15. Jeronne Maymon had an 11-17. Jarnell Stokes struggled to 1 for 7 from the field, but to his credit hit 5 of 6 free throws to finish with 7 points and 11 rebounds. But 0 for 8 from Jordan McRae and plenty of misses all around helped contribute to the 18 of 64 (28.1%) performance. Again, Tennessee was still good enough to get to overtime with their defense and their effort despite that percentage...but quite simply, Ole Miss was just better tonight: 19 from Henry, 17 from Jarvis Summers, 14 from Reginald Buckner, 12 from Murphy Holloway en route to 42.2% from the field.
UT's RPI drops to 84, well outside the highest number to be let into the field (67) since the formula changed in 2004. And just as important, UT's momentum comes to an end as an 8-1 streak dies in New Orleans. All of the math will work against UT, and you would need just about every member of the selection committee to only consider what the Vols have done with Jarnell Stokes and completely override their <70 RPI bias to put Tennessee in now, which doesn't seem realistic.
The season as a whole is still successful in Cuonzo Martin's first year, and it's not over: Tennessee will certainly make the NIT and should host at least one home game, and could host as many as three depending on their seed if they continued to win. This is still a team to be proud of, who played their way to a game that mattered enough to hurt us if we lost...and we did, and it does.