(This is where the Admiral Ackbar line goes.)
The Vols ran into an Ole Miss team that could've played their way in to the NCAA Tournament with a win today, and the Rebels came out on fire, hitting their first six threes. But the Vols were equal to the task, knocking down five of their first ten to play neck and neck with Ole Miss. As a result, the Rebels could build a lead of no more than six despite their unbelievable start from three, and once Ole Miss cooled off the two teams played an almost even first half:
- Vols 12 of 28 FG (42.9%), 7 of 15 3PT (46.7%), 3 of 5 FT (60.0%)
- Rebels 13 of 28 FG (46.4%), 6 of 12 3PT (50.0%), 3 of 6 FT (50.0%)
When the shooting percentages for both sides returned to normal in the second half, Tennessee did two things Ole Miss did not: create turnovers, and hit free throws. In what was otherwise a still fairly even game, the Vols showed poise by only turning the ball over 8 times, while forcing 14 from Ole Miss. Turnovers were key in not only preventing Ole Miss runs, but starting Tennessee's own spurts.
Two second half runs made the biggest difference in the game. The first was a 9-0 spurt that took the game from a 44-44 tie to a 53-44 UT lead. Ole Miss had an answer for that one in the form of consecutive Chris Warren threes. But minutes later, the Vols went on a 6-0 spurt that took the lead from three back to nine, and this time Ole Miss couldn't come back.
Much of this is due to the fact that the Rebels started fouling with three minutes left, but Tennessee shot a staggering 32 free throws in the second half, giving them 37 attempts for the game. And while Tennessee was knocking down 70.3% of theirs, Ole Miss was going 12 of 25 at the line, just 48.0%. Those misses added up throughout the second half, and helped Tennessee stay in front.
It was one of Tennessee's most balanced efforts of the season. The Vols were led by J.P. Prince and Cameron Tatum in the first half, and Bobby Maze and Wayne Chism in the second:
- Chism 16 points, 15 rebounds (had 26 and 12 against Ole Miss in Knoxville)
- Maze 13 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals
- Prince 17 points, 0 turnovers
- Tatum 15 points, hit his first four threes
The Vols also got key contributions from others: Brian Williams again feasted on the offensive glass, with four of his seven rebounds coming on that end of the floor. And Renaldo Woolridge, who got in the game when Steven Pearl went down with a hand injury (he later returned), hit a three that sparked that 9-0 second half run. With all of those guys playing so well, the Vols could more than survive Scotty Hopson's continued struggles in Bridgestone Arena (2 of 11 today, 0 of 8 yesterday).
The Vols played smart, played together, played defense and played well. This game required a 40 minute effort, and this team gave it. And in the end, Tennessee outlasted a game Ole Miss team, and now advances to Saturday in the SEC Tournament. It should be noted that the Vols went sixteen consecutive years without playing on Saturday in this tournament, and now Pearl has led them there three years in a row.
And this Saturday will be a little more special than the others: Kentucky awaits.
The last time the Vols and Cats played the weekend together in the SEC Tournament was the last time the Vols won it: 1979, a 75-69 overtime win for UT in the finals. Since then, we've only met twice in the tournament at all: the 101-40 beatdown that no one saw because of the Blizzard of '93, and Buzz Peterson's final game in 2005, a 76-62 loss.
Tennessee should lock up at least a four seed now, though we're certainly not the ones making the bracket. The opportunity to go north from there comes at 1:00 PM EST tomorrow. The Vols have come a long, long way under Pearl. A marquee matchup like this in the SEC Tournament was only a dream for years and years. But now the Vols have it. This game could be the difference between a good seed and a great one.
If Tennessee - who has beaten Kentucky once and played them well twice - finds a way to beat Kentucky again and takes the season series, it will be a major moment in the rivalry for us. The Vols have already come to Nashville and reached the point everyone expected them to.
Tomorrow is pure opportunity.