George Washington started four players taller than UT's biggest body in the starting lineup. After an initial UT surge, the Colonials attacked inside early and often and frustrated the Vols defensively, as UT failed to take a single free throw in the first half and GW led by 11 at the break. They pushed the lead to 15 early in the second half, and this looked like a good night to go to bed early. Tyler Cavanaugh and Kevin Larsen combined for 33 points and 19 rebounds inside.
But the Vols didn't go to bed. Tennessee closed to single digits, then played a long sequence with George Washington's lead hovering between 8 and 11 points. The Vols adjusted and were able to get to the line in the second half, though shooting just 68.8% there is sure to be a talking point for Rick Barnes.
Tennessee had already represented themselves well in hanging tough, not folding, and adjusting their play. But in the last four minutes, Tennessee sped up the pace of play and George Washington followed suit. And all of a sudden, we had a ballgame.
A pair of perimeter steals and scores by Kevin Punter turned a six point game into a two point game with two minutes to go. When George Washington responded with a score, Devon Baulkman buried a three to move the Vols within one.
Credit George Washington and specifically Joe McDonald for responding. McDonald made two huge shots to push GW's lead back to five in the final minute. Two free throws by Armani Moore pulled the Vols within three, then UT forced an over-and-back call to give themselves a chance to tie. Tennessee wanted to get Punter loose for a three at the top of the key, but he ended up settling for (and almost making) a beyond-NBA three that bounced out. George Washington rebounded, the Vols fouled, and GW was kind enough to miss two free throws with seven seconds left to provide another chance. The Vols didn't take a timeout, coming down the floor and getting another deep three, this time from Robert Hubbs, that also missed. And a wild finish led to George Washington surviving 73-70.
The numbers are what you'd expect: GW was +17 on the glass, shot more free throws and hit 45.2% from the floor. But Tennessee played a lot closer and willed a comeback against the best team they've played thus far and still shot 40% from the floor themselves and turned the ball over just six times despite the up and down pace. This is a team that can make you crazy thinking about how much better they could be if the three ball fell (7 of 24 tonight). But it's also a team that will make you proud: the Vols showed tonight they can be entertaining against better competition as well, giving themselves a chance to tie with a three ball in the air at the end of the game same as they did against Georgia Tech earlier this year.
It's a very quick turnaround: the Vols will play Nebraska in the consolation game in about 12 hours. The Cornhuskers also suffered a close loss to Cincinnati tonight. Getting out of Brooklyn with a win would be a good weekend for this young, growing, entertaining team.