Let's talk about the end first, and then we'll talk about why tonight was so great regardless.
A Robert Hubbs three put the Vols up 62-47 with 4:21 to play. Against Kansas State Tennessee led 57-45 with 3:45 to go. Against Arkansas Tennessee led 63-50 with 4:00 to play.
So this is becoming a little too familiar. The Kansas State script was mostly about turnovers. Arkansas made some crazy threes, but Tennessee kept them at bay at the free throw line. Tonight, the free throw line betrayed Tennessee in the final minutes: Kevin Punter missed the front end at 1:27 and the Vols still comfortably up nine. Armani Moore missed two with 44 seconds to play. Josh Richardson made one of two at 30 seconds, allowing Carolina the opportunity to tie. The Gamecocks missed a three that thought long and hard about going down before it rolled out, and Derek Reese grabbed a huge rebound. Then he missed his first free throw, had to step off the line to get a bandage for a bloody arm...and then made the second. Exhale. The Vols win 66-62.
What do you want to blame for this? Because the likely candidates - youth and inexperience leading to lack of composure - certainly aren't present in the first 35 minutes of these games.
Because tonight's win at South Carolina I believe belongs every bit with Kansas State and Arkansas in the quality win department. And in the first 35 minutes, especially the first 15 minutes of the second half, the Vols were flat out dominant.
Don't see Carolina's 1-4 SEC record and dismiss them. We had them as the second best team in the SEC coming into league play. Entering tonight they were still the second best defensive team in the league, trailing only Kentucky in field goal percentage allowed, three point percentage allowed, effective field goal percentage allowed, and points per possession allowed.
And tonight, Tennessee - often noted for "winning ugly" - shredded them for 56.1% from the floor and 10 of 18 for 55.6% from the arc.
It came, as is becoming a theme, from everywhere. Josh Richardson also had to seek treatment for an injury with blood early in the game and was in foul trouble late, but still finished with 13 points on 5 of 6 shooting. Kevin Punter returned to his old ways with 13 on 4 of 5. And Armani Moore repeatedly attacked less athletic post defenders to finish with 11 points.
But then the Vols got eight points and nine rebounds from Derek Reese, eight and five from Robert Hubbs, two big threes from Detrick Mostella, and five points and five rebounds from Devon Baulkman. The Vols again gave fewer minutes to their only true post players - Willie Carmichael had two and Tariq Owens did not score - but again came out on the winning side.
Tennessee isn't going to shoot 50+ percent from the arc every night, but the looks they got were fantastic against a great defensive team, the result of some great individual passes by Richardson and a number of drive and dish options on the floor. There's still plenty of room for improvement - the Vols had 17 turnovers and Richardson was credited with eight on his own - but there's also plenty of confidence brewing in this offense.
So the Gamecocks may not be the second best team in the SEC. But right now, guess who might be?
The standings back it up. A word about that: this is the first time Tennessee has started 4-1 in SEC play since 2008. None of Cuonzo's teams did it, and only two of Bruce's teams did it (2006 & 2008). The Vols are now 3-0 on the road in the SEC. Here's the date the last five Tennessee teams won their third true road game - not in the SEC, just in general - February 26, February 23, February 29, February 3, February 4.
I'm not buying the "look who they've played!" argument. Alabama and Arkansas were tough home tests, and this South Carolina team is still sitting at 48 in KenPom. The Vols are up to 79th in those rankings, but have now moved to 40th in RPI.
You want so much to just fall head over heels in love with this team, and then these last few minutes keep making you nervous. Southern Miss today self-imposed a post-season tournament ban - not an overly difficult task for a 5-11 team - but that's not making anyone feel better about Donnie Tyndall. But my goodness, every time they play is making you feel like we have a tremendous basketball coach, who has taken a roster picked to finish 13th in the SEC and moved it to 4-1 and alone in second place through five games.
Tennessee is on to the next one: Saturday, back in Knoxville against last year's nemesis. Texas A&M just won at LSU and will be favored to beat Missouri at home tomorrow night, which would make for three straight wins. If there are any easy days in this league, Saturday will not be one of them.
But Tennessee is winning games it has no business winning, and playing more efficiently - at least for the first 35 minutes - than this group has any business playing. Tonight, right now, the Vols are one of the best teams in the SEC and are making a very serious case for something more. We need to celebrate that right now. And then we need to go get the next one.
In closing, check out this awesome video of recent former Vols congratulating Josh Richardson getting his 1,000th point. There are so many good memories from Bruce & Cuonzo's time in here. How great is it, right away, to have Donnie's Vols join their company in making those memories?