If you didn't see it, you missed a lot of tension. Arkansas jumped out to a 13-6 lead, ensuring tonight wouldn't be easy. The Vols led by two at the half, but Arkansas used an 11-0 run to surge to a 59-51 lead with 14:34 to play. And even after Tennessee erased that lead with an 11-2 run of our own, the Hogs still found themselves in front 68-66 at the under four timeout.
At each of those moments, a strong sense of doubt crept in. Would the Vols lose another home game against a team we should be better than? How much worse would it be for that team to be Arkansas, who can't beat anybody on the road? And how many more of these losses could our resume and our coach really sustain before everything fell apart?
But tonight, in each one of those moments, the Vols responded. It wasn't always pretty, playing at Arkansas' pace and the ups and downs that come with it. But Tennessee regained momentum every time it gave it away. And in the final 2:52, the Vols cashed in.
That's how much time was left when Kikko Haydar - he of an incredible night off the bench with three threes - was called for an intentional foul when Jeronne Maymon got around the corner with a path to the basket waiting. The call was debatable, no doubt. But from that point on, the outcome was not.
Maymon - 9 of 10 at the line on the night - sank both free throws to tie the game at 68. And with UT ball off the intentional foul, Arkansas lost composure just long enough for Jordan McRae to get a wide open look at a three.
You can't leave McRae open, especially on a night like this one. The Vol senior finished with 34 points, including four three pointers. And none were bigger than this moment, pushing the Vols back in front 71-68. When Arkansas responded with a rushed three that hit nothing but backboard then a quick foul off the Vol rebound, a familiar finish was on for the Razorbacks.
The Vols went 10 of 14 at the line in the final two minutes and 30 of 38 for the game. All of them were important in getting the final result, an 81-74 hard fought victory to regain momentum and move to 12-6 (3-2).
It was tense, sure. But one thing did strike me while watching the game: sometimes we (and I definitely mean we) get so wrapped up in our own expectations and narratives and so caught up in what the RPI will look like at the end of the year we miss the good parts of the journey along the way. This was a really good and entertaining ballgame between what could be two good teams that ended up being a good win for the Vols, and I spent more of it worried about losing and where the story would go if we did than enjoying the game and celebrating the win.
While we're on RPI, the Vols did return to the Top 50 with the win, sneaking in at 49. Top 50 has always been good enough to get a major conference team in the tournament since the field expanded to 68. It's been our tendency to say, "same old, same old" with the team at points this year. But even if we've lost games we shouldn't, this team is clearly better than its predecessors, both of whom started SEC play 1-4. Cuonzo's first two UT squads started the year 10-12 and 11-10. Right now we're 12-6.
So heading into our biggest game of the year at Florida on Saturday, maybe it's a good time for us, yours truly included, to put down our preseason expectations and the burdens they bring and just embrace this team for what it is. These Vols are capable of frustrating losses and big wins. It'll be what it'll be. We'll still crunch the numbers when the numbers need to be crunched, but right now this team has plenty of basketball left and I feel worn out from worrying too much about what it'll look like at the end. Maybe it's just me. Either way, our team deserves our full support, and I don't want to miss a chance to enjoy this team and celebrate its wins.
Because this was a good, hard-fought win tonight behind an exceptional performance at the line and Jordan McRae at his best. We now look forward to a showdown with the Gators in Gainesville, a chance for the biggest win of the year.
Let's go get it.