For 36 minutes, it looked like the Vols were going to ride their swarming, switching, hot shooting, small ball lineup to a surprising undefeated week against two of the stronger teams in the SEC. And then the Aggies surged to the finish line, scoring points on 8 straight possessions down the stretch to close the game on a 18-4 run and escape with their undefeated SEC record still intact.
The Vols came out with their "6'5" and under" lineup to start the game again, but there was no overwhelming surprise factor like we saw against Florida. The Aggies made a concerted effort to get inside to try to take advantage, but good help defense from the guards and a couple of Armani flying blocks (5 total on the night) kept things tight early. All that time scraping the ceiling must have knocked off some rust as Armani shook off his slow SEC start to score a couple of early buckets (though he ended the night with just 6 points).
The Vols ran ahead, scoring 12 straight on the back of 7 Aggie turnovers in 8 possessions and 3's from Mostella and Baulkman. A&M showed a bit more intestinal fortitude than Florida and got themselves right back into the game with some defensive pressure of their own. The Original UT (just to clarify for any A&M fans still thinking about Texas) coughed it up 3 times on 4 trips down the floor to enable a 9-0 A&M run that cut the lead down to 3.
The Vols steadied themselves, however, behind the timely play of...Shembari Phillips and Admiral Schofield? The two freshman scored every point of an 11-2 spurt that put the Vols back up 12 with 6 minutes remaining in the half. They would lead by as many as 13 before A&M trimmed it down a bit. Halftime saw the Vols up 8 after shooting 55% from the field, 50% from deep (6 of 12) and 89% from the line (8 of 9).
A&M made an effort to get down low to start the half, mixing great position and made baskets with some blown bunnies at the rim. The Vols kept doing their thing, though, getting 3's from Baulkman and Punter and a nice rebound and putback from Schofield to keep the Aggies at arm's length for a while. You kept expecting the run to come, but for 16 minutes, it didn't. The Aggies got within 6 on 6 separate occasions, but couldn't get closer than that...until winning time.
A long Baulkman 2 with 5:48 to go put the Vols up 8; it would be their last basket from the field until 31 seconds remained. Armani Moore blocked an A&M layup attempt with 4:43 left; it would be the last empty Aggie possession of the game. Not surprisingly, those two trends led to an incredibly disappointing finish for the home fans.
The Aggies got 3 baskets in just over a minute to cut the lead to 4, all at the rim, all in situations where the defense should've been set (i.e. not after a turnover). The next time down, Danuel House got the line; he made the first and missed the second, but Jalen Jones tipped in the miss to pull the Aggies within 1. When the Vols turned it over on the next possession, the Aggies ran right to the front of the rim for another layup. Suddenly, a 10-point lead with 4 minutes to go was a 1-point deficit with 2 minutes to go.
Schofield tied it up at the line coming out of a time out, but Jalen Jones responded with another layup. The next time down, the Vols turned it over again. Desperately needing a stop, the Vols played great defense for 28.5 seconds...and then fouled a 100% free throw shooter. Collins drained both to put A&M up 4 with 31 seconds to go. Punter hit a clutch 3 to pull UT within 1, and after Caruso hit 1 of 2 free throws, the Vols had a shot to tie or win. Punter got to the rim, shot wildly, and missed, but Baulkman corralled the rebound. He threw it out to Mostella who was wide open for the potential game winning 3...and it rattled out. Two more free throws from Danuel House put the icing on the cake, and that was that.
Credit to A&M. Their best players made plays down the stretch. Jones had 27 points and 7 boards, House had 23 and 5, and Caruso did his stat stuffing thing with 13 points, 7 assists, 5 boards, and 5 steals. They kept it close enough to give themselves a chance down the stretch.
That said, it's tough to not be disappointed. The Vols did more than go toe-to-toe with the Aggies, they led them by 8-12 points for 20 minutes tonight before being unable to close. In a lot of ways, the ending reminded me of Oklahoma or Florida in football season with it looking like the team was hoping the clock would run out. As a result, they got stagnant on offense and torched on defense. To have 6 players in double figures (19 from Punter, 16 from Schofield, 15 from Phillips, 11 each from Baulkman and Mostella, and 10 from Hubbs) and come out on the wrong end of this one will sting.
The Vols fall to 8-7 overall and 1-2 in SEC play. It'll be interesting to see how Barnes divvies up minutes and if he remains committed to staying small (Alexander only played 2 minutes tonight). We'll find out when the Vols travel to Athens to take on the Bulldogs at 7pm on Wednesday in another tough test against one of the league's better teams.