Inside Thompson-Boling Arena, with no students and attendance dipping below 17,000, the atmosphere in the stands and perhaps on the court screamed, "We are going to win this game." The Vols didn't overlook Oakland, and Oakland wasn't intimidated - most of the first half played out the way a lot of first round NCAA Tournament games go: lower seed hangs with the higher seed for a while, but the higher seed shows signs that they're going to pull away. So even when Keith Benson dropped 20 in the first half to give us some Jodie Meeks flashbacks, the outcome never felt like it was in doubt. When the Vols stepped on the gas at the end of the first half to stretch the margin to 50-39 at halftime, it appeared Tennessee had too much talent in an up tempo game to be caught, and the outcome wasn't in doubt.
And for the first ten minutes of the second half, the Vols kept Oakland at a safe distance. Points for Tennessee were coming from everywhere - 16 for Tobias Harris, an 18-13 for Brian Williams, 18 and 6 assists for Melvin Goins, and 13 from Cameron Tatum. This was enough to cover up Scotty Hopson's familiar inconsistency - 7 points after the best game of his life at Pitt - and is still an impressive display of offense from the entire starting lineup...which is great, but getting only 10 points from your bench is not.
Meanwhile, Benson banged his knee and lost some of his productivity in the second half, finishing with only 5 points in the final 20 minutes. So yeah, we were going to win this game, up 11 with 13 minutes to play.
But then, an Oakland team that's learned and progressed admirably (24 point loss at West Virginia, 15 point loss at Purdue, 11 point loss at Illinois, 1 point loss at Michigan State...) found points from other sources. The Grizzlies never fully went away, and when they got hot, Tennessee went cold.
It took them three minutes to get within one, 65-64 with 10:20 to play. The Vols stepped on the gas again and pushed the lead back to eight at the under eight, and again: we were going to win.
But Oakland, to their absolute credit, kept coming.
I think we all expected them to lay down or run out of gas at some point, but they put on more steam. And when Tennessee flatlined at the worst possible time - stuck on 76 points from the seven minute mark to the two minute mark - the Grizzlies forged their way to the lead.
When Oakland jumped ahead by five and doubt first creeped in, Melvin Goins made a steal and a score to end the drought, and then the Grizzlies turned it over. Down three with the ball with less than two minutes to go, the Vols were still in good shape...but a Tobias Harris miss was followed by Goins losing control on the offensive rebound. After both teams made 1/2 free throws, Oakland ran the clock down, and then Larry Wright made the biggest shot of the night: a three pointer with the shot clock winding down, pushing Oakland's lead to six and sending everyone into panic mode.
From there, Brian Williams again struggled at the free throw line - he went 2 of 6 in the final 2:18 - and Tennessee couldn't hit any shots. After Cam Tatum's dunk at the 8:30 mark to put the Vols up 7, Tennessee shot 2 of 14 the rest of the way home. The Vols also turned the ball over four times in that stretch, and though we were a respectable 22 of 31 for the game from the stripe, six of our nine misses came in the final 8:30.
We've praised the Vols for their maturity for the last four days - great halfcourt defense, great end of game free throw shooting, and the poise to win games at the end. But tonight, dealing with an opponent that wouldn't go away, the Vols failed in all of those areas down the stretch.
Oakland shot 53.6% for the game, and while the bank was certainly open and some of this can be attributed to a hot shooting night on their part, credit Benson for destroying us in the first half, and the rest of the team for making huge shots when they had to, especially Wright. The Vols couldn't stop the bleeding at the free throw line, couldn't stop the run from anywhere, and by the time all of us realized that we might not, in fact, win this game...it was too late.
I hesitate to use the phrase "wake up call", because you better not need one after that exhibition loss. Consider this one of the lessons that we figured this team, still with considerable youth and inexperience, would have to learn: the Vols have to be better at dropping the hammer on teams. Belmont, Missouri State, and VCU were all allowed to hang around longer than they should have, and required some clutch end-of-game free throw shooting to put to bed. Oakland, who probably belongs in that same group as far as talent goes, didn't go away, and learned how to finish by coming up short against the other non-conference teams they've seen.
This was the first time Tennessee had to deal with a tie game in the final two minutes, and we flunked. We should've never let them get that close, and once they did we should've played with more poise.
This was a maturity win for Oakland, and a maturity loss for the Vols. We'll learn and get better. Credit the Grizzlies - who we'll see next year in Michigan and the following year back in Knoxville - for a job well done tonight. That team was due, and they deserved it tonight. The Vols head on the road to Charlotte in the Bobcats' arena on Friday, where plenty of orange support should await them. Then it's back home next Tuesday for a rematch with Southern Cal, and while we may think emotion will carry us through the Lane Kiffin Classic, Bruce Pearl also better be ready to atone for the lesson Kevin O'Neill gave him last year.
Everything good about this team that we saw against Nova and Pitt is still there. But our youth and inexperience never fully went away either. Don't let inferior teams hang around...and learn now, not later, how to play with poise in the final minutes.
(For more, check out Bobo's recap)