First up, congrats to Georgia for its second win over the Vols today. The Bulldogs played really good defense, holding Tennessee to 38.6% from the floor and keeping the Vols off the free throw line until the final minutes (UT finished 14 of 16 at the stripe). This game was, in many ways, very similar to the earlier meeting in Knoxville: Georgia took an early lead, the Vols rallied midway through the second half, but then Georgia ran away again. The Dawgs shot 55% from the arc in the Knoxville win and followed up with 8 of 16 from three today, paced by 25 on 4 of 8 from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Trae Golden didn't play in the first game, and we thought the presence of the reigning SEC Player of the Week would make all the difference. Instead, Golden was invisible again: 0 for 9 from the floor until the final thirty seconds. Vols not named Jordan McRae were 2 of 14 from the three point line; Georgia's defense frustrated us and forced the Vols into too many threes and not enough free throws. Jarnell Stokes finished with just seven shots and eight points.
McRae was the only thing that kept us alive today, and he did a spectacular job of it: a career high 35 points on 10 of 15 from the field, 7 of 7 at the line, and a stunning 8 of 11 from the three point line. It was a road performance worthy of the very best of Chris Lofton or Allan Houston in an orange uniform, continues his incredible tear over the last month...and the Vols leave Athens with a ten point loss. In the last four games McRae has scored 34, 23, 27, and 35. But the best of his best efforts wasn't enough today, because no one else in orange really played that well.
Josh Richardson scored 8 points but took 11 shots; Richardson should never have more field goal attempts than Stokes. Kenny Hall was solid with 10 points, but Skylar McBee was 1 of 7 from the arc. Stokes didn't get his usual opportunities, and again, Golden was just not good all day.
This has been a great basketball team in the last few weeks - great play from McRae, to be absolutely sure, but the other guys have been great as well. We've mentioned before that this team has three great components in Golden, Stokes, and McRae...but as we've seen, when only one of them is firing, it's not enough on the road. And everyone wearing orange knows this, including McRae I'm sure. We win and lose as a team, and we only go forward as a team.
McRae gave the Vols the lead at 41-40 midway through the second half. From there, Georgia pushed back immediately and repeatedly. Tennessee's defense was not up to par today, and not just against KCP: the Vols allowed dribble penetration and got lost on interior passing a number of times. Even with McRae's numbers, the Vols could not string together enough stops to mount a serious threat down the stretch, and the dam finally broke in the final minutes as the lead surged from five to twelve.
Thankfully, road losses aren't as costly in the ol' RPI - the Vols drop just a couple of spots to 55. Don't expect that number to rise much even if the Vols close with wins at Auburn (RPI 216) or home vs Missouri, though the Vols will certainly need both and then some additional work in Nashville to get back on the right side of the conversation. I'm not sure that Tennessee absolutely has to win the SEC Tournament to get in, but the Vols have lost the ability to feel in control of their own destiny if they fail to do so.
This hurts, but it's not over yet. Tennessee has to pick itself up, rediscover the great basketball the non-McRae Vols played in the last three weeks, and take it to Auburn Wednesday night. This team has to carry each other - as we've seen, a huge outburst from one guy isn't enough if the whole team doesn't contribute offensively and defend well defensively.
We need an entire team effort to get this train moving back in the right direction and get back in the tournament picture. Let's hope Cuonzo and the guys can find it moving forward.