Against Alabama on Saturday, Tennessee was historically bad on offense. The Vols scored 38 points, mostly because they didn't score for more than 13 minutes in the second half, turning a competitive game into an Alabama blowout. Tennessee had a bad taste in its mouth, which threatened to undo some of the work Donnie Tyndall and this young squad had done in the non-conference, earning the investment of the fanbase in a year many had written off before it started.
But tonight, Tennessee erased the memories of Saturday with a spectacular performance against an even better team. It was exciting throughout and a little too exciting in the final minutes. But this time the Vols leave Thompson-Boling with an excellent taste in their mouths, courtesy of a 74-69 win over #19 Arkansas.
Something you may have forgotten in the fury of the ending: Tennessee trailed for 63 seconds in this game.
The only Arkansas leads of the night were 2-0 and 4-2. Robert Hubbs, who was one of tonight's biggest stories, set the tone with an early three to break a 4-4 tie, then added another layup to put the Vols up 11-7. A Derek Reese throwdown put the Vols up 16-7, waking up the crowd and both teams. When Arkansas went on a 9-0 run to tie it, Tennessee responded with a 6-0 run to retake the lead.
Tennessee led 33-31 at halftime, then opened the second half with a purpose: a 10-2 run before the first media timeout gave the Vols their first double digit lead of the night. When Arkansas cut it back to five at 43-38, Tennessee played one of its most impressive stretches of basketball of the season: an 11-0 run over nearly five minutes, sparked by a pair of Armani Moore buckets and then the perceived backbreaker: consecutive threes from Detrick Mostella, making it 53-38 at 12:18. During this stretch Arkansas had three turnovers and went 0 for 6 from the field. On the night, the Hogs turned it over 18 times.
When Arkansas cut it to nine with six minutes to play, the Vols got a three from Hubbs and a score from Josh Richardson to push it back to 14. The Vols were still up 11 at the final media timeout with 3:12 to play. And then, it got crazy.
Bobby Portis, who was quiet at times but still finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, followed a Michael Qualls dunk with two quick scores of his own, cutting the lead to 63-58 with 1:29 to go. At this point, Tennessee was 3 for 12 from the free throw line. But Robert Hubbs knocked down two and Derek Reese added one, putting the Vols back up nine with 52 seconds to play.
Then Arkansas went to the three ball and made three of four attempts, one of them completely covered up in the corner. Tennessee kept hitting free throws around this with two from Kevin Punter and two from Josh Richardson. But then Devon Baulkman missed a pair, and Anton Beard's three with 13 seconds to go made it a one point game.
Kevin Punter hit two more, giving the Vols a 72-69 lead with eight seconds to go. And Tennessee had a foul to give. So the Vols gave it, and Arkansas knew it was coming: Beard went into what Teddy Valentine determined to be a shooting motion, though there's certainly debate about that. So with five seconds to play, Beard went to the line for three free throws that could tie the game, erasing Tennessee's 16 point lead.
He missed the first.
Then he missed the second. Then he intentionally missed the third, Armani Moore grabbed the rebound, and knocked down two free throws of his own to end the threat. The Vols started 3 of 12 from the line, but went 11 of 14 in the final 1:08 to get the job done.
As I type this, Donnie Tyndall is on his postgame radio show talking about his team switching gears into "playing not to lose" mode toward the end of the game. We saw the Vols almost blow a ten point lead in the final minute against Kansas State. Tonight's run for Arkansas featured fewer Tennessee turnovers and more contested threes for the Hogs, so for some of that you have to tip your cap. Hopefully as the Vols continue to mature, this problem will go away.
And if the Vols continue to mature, they could have more chances to hold a double digit lead in the final minutes. This was Tennessee's second win over a Top 20 team this season, restoring confidence in the present for Tyndall and these Vols. Josh Richardson was his usual self, 8 of 11 with 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Armani Moore was nasty inside despite Arkansas' size advantage, going 6 of 8 for 14 points and 8 rebounds.
But the biggest long-term note on this game could be Robert Hubbs: a career high 16 points on 6 of 7 shooting, including a pair of threes. This is the least tentative I've ever seen Hubbs, going strong to the hole instead of settling for floaters or pull-up jumpers. Tyndall moved him into the starting lineup for this game - Kevin Punter's shooting slump continued, going 1 for 8 off the bench - and it paid immediate and consistent dividends.
Hubbs isn't going to go from last week to instantly fulfilling his five-star potential. But anything Tennessee can do to take the pressure off Josh Richardson is a great thing, and you have to like his confidence after tonight.
Josh Richardson, Robert Hubbs and Armani Moore shot a combined 20-of-26 for 50 points against Arkansas.— Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward) January 14, 2015
So, it feels like what we thought before the Alabama game is still true: you've got Kentucky, but then the rest of this league is very tightly packed. And Tennessee is going to be thin enough to lose to anyone and game enough to beat anyone. The next three for the Vols: at Missouri, at South Carolina, and Texas A&M in Knoxville before we'll see these Razorbacks again in Fayetteville. The matchups look a little better for Tennessee than this two game homestand did coming in, but you just never know what to expect, and tonight is clearly an example of that.
For those who care about such things, Tennessee moves to 49th in RPI. The most important number right now is 2-1 in SEC play, getting the split they needed against Alabama and Arkansas and now taking their show on the road again. We'll see over the many weeks if the Vols can be in the resume conversation and if this win can subsequently show up as a quality one. But the most important thing about tonight was the way it reinforced the idea that this Tennessee team can compete on every single night, and that competition is clearly capable of turning into victory.
What a huge win for Donnie Tyndall and this team. They'll enjoy the extra day of rest before heading to Missouri over the weekend.