Sometimes highly-seeded teams that don't play on Thursday come out a little sleepy on Friday. Not Arkansas.
The Hogs opened the game on a 13-0 run en route to a 45-25 halftime lead. SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis had 18 points and six rebounds in the first half alone. The lead was still 17 with 14 minutes to play.
Tennessee's run tonight was more of a slow burn. Robert Hubbs and Josh Richardson helped get it to single digits, but Arkansas pushed it back to 14 with 7:52 to play. But after another Richardson score, Kevin Punter hit a pair of threes to cut the lead to five with 4:57 to go. Tennessee again chose not to lay down and die.
After Portis hit a pair of free throws, it was Punter again with an and-one to make it 69-65 with 3:35 to play. The Vols got the ball back, but on this night the magic was a little more scarce and the opponent a little more talented. Richardson was called for an offensive foul to give it back to Arkansas. The two teams traded a bunch of free throws leaving the Hogs up 73-67. And tonight, good looking threes from Hubbs and Punter wouldn't fall on the next possession. Down six with the ball two possessions later, Josh Richardson attacked and, for once, didn't draw the double team. It surprised him, turning an anticipated pass into an awkward shot that missed. And from there, Arkansas did the rest at the free throw line.
They did it all night at the free throw line in a whistle-happy game: 32 of 39 from the stripe, 82.1%. Tennessee wasn't bad, 25 of 34 for 73.5%. But the Hogs ran away early and did enough to keep Tennessee at bay late.
The end result is Arkansas advances to Saturday and Tennessee goes home at 16-16. The Vols drop from 95 to 97 in RPI and will need a wide NIT field of at-large bids to get in. As I type seven spots have been taken by low-major regular season conference champions who lost in their conference tournaments, leaving 25 spots at most for teams like the Vols. Is Tennessee one of the 25 best teams to not make the NCAA Tournament? How many more spots will disappear tonight and tomorrow? Will the Vols elect to pay and play in the CBI if they're not taken by the NIT?
The win over Vanderbilt helps give this season the sense of a good ending even if tonight was it against a good Arkansas team. We'll see where things shake out for Tennessee over the weekend, and then enter into the prolonged waiting game with the NCAA and Donnie Tyndall. But if tonight was it for Josh Richardson (22 and 10) and the 2015 Vols, they battled through difficult circumstances, competed more often than not, and showed flashes of what could be if Tyndall can stay around and recruit at the level we need.
It's out of our hands for now. But you have to applaud the heart and effort of this team all along the way.