In postseason play you survive and advance first, and worry about the details second. So while it's tempting to pile on this up-and-down Tennessee team for allowing a 16-0 Arkansas run from the 7:07 mark to the 2:08 mark, which turned a fun blowout into a tie game, we should turn our attention first to the fact that Tennessee closed the door in those final two minutes...which hasn't always happened this year.
Brian Williams, who played with a bad back and a finger in his eye, controlled a tough pass from Tobias Harris and scored in the paint to give the Vols the lead again at 70-68 with 53 seconds to play. Melvin Goins followed up with a steal, and he and Tobias Harris knocked down four free throws in the final thirty seconds. Meanwhile, Arkansas used up all their fire in earning the tie, and went cold from three in the final minute. It was enough to allow the Vols to escape, and in March you take escape.
It was, for once, the "everybody contributes" narrative: Tobias Harris led the way with 20 points (16 in the first half) to go with the 21 he scored in Fayetteville. Melvin Goins continues to assert himself as a scorer instead of a creator, and on this night the Vols will take it: 12 points and, just as important, 3 steals.
Scotty Hopson played fewer minutes and took fewer shots, still finishing with 8 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. And the player we know best played one of his best games, as Williams finished with 9 points and 8 rebounds, helping the Vols win the battle on the boards.
And while Cameron Tatum continued to struggle (1 of 8, 3 points, 3 turnovers), Josh Bone flourished: 8 points, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and more sensational defense. Rotnei Clarke got 18 points, but shot just 4 of 13 from the floor. Add in six from Steven Pearl and four points and five rebounds from Kenny Hall, and this felt like a true team effort for the first time in a long time.
But while the whole team deserves credit for building a sixteen point lead, the whole team also deserves credit for the defensive lapse that allowed Arkansas to tie the game. I don't know if we relaxed or Arkansas just turned it on or what, but after the Vols opened the second half 15 of 19 to build the 16 point lead, Arkansas hit 11 of 12 over a 12 minute stretch that led to the tie.
It was a faster pace than anything we've played recently, and while we certainly enjoyed it on the offensive end (and did so despite shooting 2 of 15 from the arc, which includes Brian Williams' "I got this" NBA three as the shot clock expired), the defensive effort fell apart when the lead hit double figures. Against our next opponent, that sort of lapse will not get it done.
The next opponent is Florida, the SEC regular season champion. The Gators and Vols have played 85 minutes of basketball this year. Florida has a six point overtime win and a final possession one point win. During those 85 minutes, neither team was ever up more than eight points.
Despite the records and the projected seeding, Tennessee and Florida are extremely even on the floor. Both of the first meetings were games in the 60s in regulation - don't expect the pace of play we saw tonight. But I would expect another great basketball game - Florida is the best this league has to offer, but the Vols will be right there with them again if we play our game.
The Vols should be safely in the field and safely away from the First Four games now. This next game is about finally getting the job done against the best team in the league, when we've been so close twice. And if the Vols beat the Gators, they'll do themselves a huge favor in the bracket with what would become our second biggest win of the year.
Expect another good one tomorrow night. Survive. Advance. Go Vols.