Jackson the Mule's pregame pep talk last night was some revelation about having fewer headbands this year than last. His first draft, though, which he somehow wadded up with those clunky hooves and tossed behind a giant oak tree, read, "I predict the unpredictable." Turns out mules are more than just obstinate. Vol fans witnessed both sides of the unpredictable continuum last night as Tennessee nearly ran the South Carolina Gamecocks out of their own building in the first half but only barely held on to win 73-69.
The first half was wonderful in a sort of frightening kind of way. Tennessee led 40-23, and the team was shooting 61.9% (13-21) from the field, 80% (4-5) from behind the arc, and 90.9% (10-11) from the free throw line. They also had 8 fast break points to Carolina's 0 and yet another poster dunk from Scotty Hopson. The machine was not only well-oiled, it was speeding down the interstate, weaving in and out of traffic like it had Super Slo-Mo powers, drinking a Starbucks, eating a donut, singing Barenaked Ladies in three-part harmony with itself, and talking on the phone while surfing the internet. Things were clicking, is what I'm trying to say.
Hopson, of course, had the wheel. At one point, he was 4-5 from the field, 2-2 from three-point range, and 1-1 from the charity line. And don't forget that dunk, that beautiful thing that Scotty do. Everything was beautiful right down to the last possession of the first half. If I asked anyone who (1) missed last night's game, and (2) has watched the Vols lose several close games this season, to guess what we did with the last shot of the first half with the clock winding down, the first thing out of their mouths would win them the game show ding-ding. That. We did that. Again.
Anyway, Hopson had another 8 points in the second half, but the rest of the team pushed him into the backseat, stole his donut and his phone, and nearly drove into the ditch. Carolina's Sam Muldrow was beasty, finishing the game with 24 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks in 38 minutes. Ramon Galloway, too, had a solid game, adding 15 points on 5-9 shooting from the field and 3-4 from three. A couple of other guys flirted with double digit points as well.
Meanwhile, the Vols cooled off from the field (40.9%, 9-22) and from the free throw line (65.2%, 15-23) and went absolutely frozen tundra from the arc (0-6, which my computer tells me is 0%). We got out-rebounded 20-12, out-benched 16-1, and out-scored in the paint 20-16.
Fortunately, we didn't get out-Tobias Harris'ed, as he came alive (and finished the game with one point more than Hopson). And although Hopson and Harris once again combined for the great majority of the points (71%) and no one else hit double digits, we got just enough from the rest of the guys to pull it out in the end. Cam Tatum (who still didn't shoot very well but was very aggressive) and Melvin Goins each added 7 points to the ledger, and Steven Pearl was practically the third playmaker, managing only four points but contributing in several ways, including drawing a charge, a dribble-drive or two, another Pearl Reverse Layup (TM), and a magnificent tip of a 50/50 ball to an open teammate for an easy shot on a chaotic fast break.
The Gamecocks chipped away at the Vols' lead the entire second half, and even when the Big Orange extended the lead to 11 with 2:43 to play, they narrowed it to 4 with just over a minute to play before Goins and Harris closed it out. Props to Carolina for playing hard the entire game and making a contest of it. And props to our guys for not caving in at the end.
Unexpected is what we've come to expect with this team, and last night against Carolina we got just what we didn't unexpect. For me, I'm at the same place with the team now that I was with Scotty Hopson when I compared him to the dog that I love but won't tell. I'd love to see the team put it all together on a consistent basis, and perhaps they, as Scotty has, will do just that at just the right time. Perhaps Pearl will have an epiphany and make one last tweak that finally opens the puzzle box, and the team will get on a roll that no one, not even themselves, can stop.
Let's hope, because it's March.
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