With under ten minutes to play in the first half Tennessee sent Jarnell Stokes to the bench with two fouls. He joined Jordan McRae on the pine, also out with foul trouble. The Vols went with backups and shockingly held Texas A&M without a field goal for more than nine minutes. During those nine minutes the Vols slowly built a 14 point halftime lead at 32-18.
In the second half, Texas A&M slowly took it away. It was eight at the under twelve. It was five at the under eight. Tennessee built it back to seven with 5:17 to go, but A&M's freshman Jamal Jones just kept coming. He did it with volume, but scored nine consecutive A&M points from the 5:01 mark until a free throw at 1:05 made it a two point game.
After two Antonio Barton free throws and an Alex Caruso layup, the Vols led 56-54 with 33 seconds to play. Then it got weird. Jordan McRae was called for an offensive hook foul, giving the ball back to Texas A&M. The Aggies watched Caruso go to the line, but he missed both. The Vols watched Jeronne Maymon go to the line, but he missed both. And so A&M came down the floor with 17 seconds to play, Antwan Space launched a three and buried it with around 4.5 seconds to go. The Vols had three timeouts, but elected to take none of them, and a deep running three from Jordan McRae came up short, as did the Vols.
Texas A&M led 3-0 at the start of the game, then didn't lead or tie again until the final 4.5 seconds.
You want to blame foul trouble, but the Vols were excellent in the first half without their two best players. Those two players were not good today: McRae was 2 of 8 for 9 points, Stokes was 2 of 5 for 6, and they combined for 7 turnovers. Overall the Vols, who led the SEC in ball security, gave it away 16 times for the second consecutive game.
A major culprit here was defense: the Vols gave up 18 points in the first half and twice as much in the second half. Jamal Jones regularly got past Josh Richardson late in that run. The Aggies shot 53.8% in the second half. Maybe the Vols got complacent, maybe the first half was an exception, but either way there's no excuse for that.
And until that dagger went in the real story was going to be A&M shooting so unbelievably well from the arc and so unbelievably poorly from the line. The dagger will happily re-emphasize the point in victory for the Aggies: 8 of 15 from the arc (53.3%), 9 of 18 from the line. A&M shot 50% at the line and still came back to win this game.
Tennessee loses its four game winning streak and its argument that all had been fixed after a team meeting or an increase in tempo. Without question, much has been fixed. But a loss like this is going to drive the narrative right back to Cuonzo's inability to consistently get the job done in games we should win. With an announced crowd north of 18,000 and students back for the first SEC game, I fear this may damage interest going forward too.
There's still plenty of basketball left and a big game at Kentucky next Saturday to win back the people and the narrative. But first the Vols have to go through Auburn, another team they should beat, at home on Wednesday night. The Vols have absolutely no one to blame but themselves tonight for giving this game away. And until we stop losing games like this, at home to RPI 100+ teams, Cuonzo and these Vols are going to carry around this stereotype.
The chance to try and change it again comes Wednesday night vs Auburn. Go Vols.