At Georgetown, at Alabama, at Kentucky, and now at Ole Miss. Four opportunities for critical road victories to help build a tournament resume. All four times, the Vols were in position to win at the final media timeout. And all four times, Tennessee came up empty.
Questions about the Vol identity that came up after losses to Memphis and Ole Miss in Knoxville have been resolved; the Vols played their best defense of the season in the first half tonight, then fell victim to incredible shooting from Marshall Henderson in the second half. Almost all of his shots were well defended or unreasonably deep. And yet, most of them went in during the second half, when 24 of his 28 points fell through the net. It was, once again, just out of reach for Jordan McRae, who tied his previous career high with 26, last set two weeks ago against the same opponent. But McRae also had nine turnovers and did not score in the final minutes.
His two missed free throws with Ole Miss leading 58-56 started a horrible run of despair for Tennessee to close this game. As the Vols continued to defend well, Tennessee had five straight possessions with a chance to tie or take the lead in the final two minutes. And the Vols never scored: McRae missed two free throws, the Vols turned it over twice, Armani Moore missed two free throws, then McRae and Golden went begging on threes in the final thirty seconds.
The end result is another hard fought loss, dropping the Vols to 9-8, 1-4 in league play, and painfully thin on opportunities for marquee wins the rest of the way. As we've seen over and over, Tennessee defends well enough to win, even on the road against good teams. But the Vols can't shoot from the outside (3 of 15 tonight), frequently turn the ball over so much it negates even the best defensive efforts, and haven't been able to make the big plays down the stretch since the Wichita State game.
Credit Ole Miss, who was clearly taken out of its element by the Vol defense in the first half but answered with authority in the second half: 44 points, and I didn't feel like we were playing that poorly on the defensive end. This is a good basketball team with a great shooter and a strong inside combo, and should easily end the SEC's longest tournament drought in a few weeks. Maybe the Vols will get another crack in the SEC Tournament.
To show you how much this win would've been worth, the Vols lost and still climbed to 94 in the RPI as of 9:30 PM tonight. And it's a quick turnaround for Tennessee, getting the Alabama team who beat us two weeks ago in Knoxville Saturday at 2:00 PM.
Don't give up on this team. It clearly has its limits and self-destructs at the worst possible time on the road. Can Cuonzo lead them out of it the rest of the way? There is still meaningful basketball left to be played this season, starting with Alabama on Saturday, but the Vols need a meaningful win. Here's hoping for short memories and equal effort Saturday afternoon. Go Vols.