Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports
It's great. To be...
First of all, hats off to Texas A&M in our first meeting as SEC foes. No one should have to lose a game like this, and while it will be easy to use language like, "We wanted it more!", in four overtimes that's never the case. People on both sides will remember this one a long time.
Forty minutes of regulation and 3.5 overtimes later, Tennessee's biggest lead of the night was four points. Four points in 57 minutes of basketball. Texas A&M jumped the Vols early, building an 11-2 lead from the opening tip. The Vols couldn't throw it in the ocean, Elston Turner was heating up, and memories of bad offense and bad basketball on the road from earlier this season were creeping into our collective mind.
Tennessee rallied on the road against a good team, something this team would not have been mature enough to do earlier this season. When Jarnell Stokes couldn't buy one in the first half, Trae Golden and Jordan McRae paced us with nine each in the first twenty minutes as we cut the lead to 31-28. Then we went back and forth in the second half, the Vols pushing ahead 41-37 before A&M responded immediately. The Vols fell victim to their greatest enemy from last season: going consecutive media timeouts without a made field goal, in this case from the under 16 to the under 8. But our defense kept us in it; A&M shot 54% in the first half but finished at just 42.3% for the game.
In the final four minutes of regulation, the lead kept changing hands. Down one in the final seconds, Jordan McRae forced a long three and missed, but Jarnell Stokes grabbed the biggest rebound of his career, securing the ball with authority in the lane and getting fouled. Stokes hit the first to tie it, missed the second, but A&M missed a three, and we were off to overtime. And, as you know, just getting started.
The Vols grabbed a quick 64-63 lead, then wouldn't see the lead again until the third overtime. A&M had a chance to end it at the end of the first overtime, taking a four point lead, at that point hitting 14 of 16 free throws. Trae Golden went the distance and scored a layup to pull the Vols back within two with 17.7 seconds left, and the Vols fouled again. This time the Aggies missed one, and it was all the window we needed: Jordan McRae buried a deep three to tie the game again, and after dodging a serious bullet by Elston Turner, we were off to a second overtime.
A&M never trailed in the second overtime, led by two down the stretch, but a driving shot by Trae Golden on a floater tied the score, and a great block by Josh Richardson sent us to a third overtime. We finally got the lead in the third overtime and had a chance to salt it away, especially after an NBA All-Star level block and rebound by Stokes...but Stokes missed both free throws, and A&M got a backside lay-in to tie it in the final seconds again, leading to a Golden turnover and a fourth overtime.
In the postgame, Trae Golden just told Bob Kesling Cuonzo Martin was saying in the overtime huddles, "Who's going to accept the challenge? Who's going to accept the challenge?"
And in the fourth overtime, the first in program history, Tennessee answered.
Jordan McRae got it started, then the Vols pushed the lead to three with 2:32 to go. Then Trae Golden buried a shot to put the Vols up five with 1:56 to play. After 58 minutes...it was our biggest lead of the night.
And then, the floodgates.
The Vols got a stop, Jarnell Stokes got another rebound, Tennessee milked the clock to perfection, and then found Skylar McBee in the corner. You know the rest.
McBee's bomb was the exclamation point on four overtimes and the arrival of this team in the NCAA Tournament conversation, not just on this blog or in Knoxville, but everywhere. As the Vols finished off A&M at the free throw line and won 93-85, they continued their five game win streak, moved to 59 in the RPI, moved to 8-6 in the SEC, and most importantly, for the second time in a week, Tennessee Basketball made a statement on a national stage.
Tennessee beat Kentucky by 30 points and won a four overtime game on consecutive Saturdays. Read that again, because the people will be talking.
Again, hats off to Texas A&M. Elston Turner had 38 points, but he started 11 of 14 and finished 5 of 19. The Aggies shot an incredible 16 of 20 at the free throw line, and still have to walk away feeling like one missed free throw in the first overtime cost them dearly.
As for us, it starts with Trae Golden. Cuonzo Martin said on his postgame show it was a game Golden couldn't have played last season: 56 minutes, 32 points, 11 of 12 at the free throw line. Strength coach Nicodemus Christopher deserves a raise: the Vols never substituted until the outcome wasn't in doubt in the final overtime, riding Golden, McRae, Richardson, Stokes, and McB43 to victory in every extra frame.
This wasn't Jordan's best game - 23 points on 22 shots - but he made every one count, and we absolutely don't win without him. And Jarnell Stokes had 20 points and 16 rebounds, and absolutely dominated the paint in the second half and overtime. He single-handedly made sure Texas A&M didn't get any more chances down the stretch.
And I'm so happy for Skylar McBee. Here's a local kid who will always be remembered for that shot he hit against Kansas as a freshman, and rightfully so. But this was the best game of his career: a dozen points on three threes and three free throws, and some serious shades of Dane Bradshaw with seven rebounds, including some huge ones late in the overtime periods. Skylar did all that while chasing Elston Turner around most of the night. He is a huge part of our best basketball - quietly, the Vols stayed white-hot from behind the arc at 10 of 21 today.
Our best basketball says hello to the bubble and hello to the Florida Gators in 73 hours in Knoxville. And that place will be rocking. This was a unique and unbelievable game that continues an incredible ride this basketball team is on. Don't stop now.