And then there was one.
Five short days ago, there were four teams tied for second place in the SEC with a 5-3 conference record: Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida. Today, three of the four teams - Florida being the outcast - were still tied and coming off big wins against conference opponents. It seemed like they were on a collision course to battle it out over the next few weeks for a chance to play Friday during the upcoming SEC Tournament.
Well, as with most sports scenarios, just take that entire scene, crumble it up, douse it in something flammable, and watch that mother burn.
There is only one team that sits in second place behind the Auburn Tigers after another dominating performance. It's the only team in the SEC - currently - that can handle their own when it matters most.
Yup, you guessed it. The Tennessee Volunteers have put themselves in prime position to challenge for the best record in the regular season. They sit just 2.5 games (6-3, 17-5) behind Auburn (8-1, 20-2) with eight games to go.
There aren't enough southern colloquialisms that could sum up how good this team has looked over the last three games. They've made statement after statement, as well as lowered the state's average blood pressure readings, winning by an average of 26.3 points during the span.
The Vols continued to ride their suffocating defense and excellent outside shooting to another double-digit victory over an SEC opponent, making it their second straight SEC win by doubles, and their third straight overall.
It's hard to pin down the catalyst of tonight's performance, as five players scored at least ten points on the night, but junior forward Kyle Alexander is a good start. After jumping out to a 12-3 lead early in the game, the Rebels made a few plays to cut the lead down to two points, while making the Vols look vulnerable in the process.
But that didn't last long after Alexander decided to take the first half into his own hands, tying for the team lead with eight points, while recording six rebounds and one block in just 13 minutes of play. Because of his presence on the inside, the Rebels couldn't get their outside game going. Tennessee ended up going into halftime up by ten, 35-25.
Even though there was still an entire half to play, it didn't seem like there was much the Rebels could do to win this game. They gave the Vols their best shot and UT countered with an absolute wrecking ball for a right hook, and now they were ready to end it with the left.
Ole Miss got off to a quick start to begin the second half, pulling themselves within three after a couple quick layups and a three-pointer, but the Vols snuffed them out quicker than kindling.
What UT did to the Rebels after their short, sweet glimmer of hope was downright dirty. After beginning with a 9-0 run, the Vols doubled down, outscoring Ole Miss 50-25 over the remaining 16:30 of the second half, dominating the rest of the way to a 94-61 win - their largest winning margin of the season.
The beautiful aspect of this win was not only the fact that the Vols played one of their most efficient games of the season on both ends of the court, but the effort that was on display was some of the best I've seen from the Vols this season.
Guard James Daniel III had consecutive steals in an important sequence that helped get the Vols' lead to ten points for the first time during the game. As mentioned earlier, Alexander had offensive rebound after offensive rebound, recording four in the first half alone. Williams had a beautiful spin move to the bucket that made a Rebels defender look like he was stuck in mud, while sending the Vols' bench into a frenzy.
You could tell who wanted this game more. And you could tell who the game belonged to midway through the second half.
Alexander tied a career-high 14 points, while pulling down six rebounds, and blocking four shots. His presence allowed forward Grant Williams to lead the team in scoring for the ninth time with 17 points on 55% shooting.
Admiral Schofield led the team in rebounds with 12, while redshirt sophomore guard Lamonte Turner was a monster from downtown again, hitting 5/6 of his attempts.
The Vols travel to Rupp Arena to take on the Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday, February, 6th at 7:00pm ET.
Stats from the game:
- The Vols recorded just six turnovers for the entire game in contrast to 27 by the Rebels.
- Perhaps the scariest moment of the entire game came early in the second half when Schofield landed awkwardly on an opponent's foot and hurt his right ankle. Fortunately for Tennessee, he came back in shortly after and played very well.
- Alexander's 14 points tied a both season and career highs. He scored 14 points earlier in the season against Texas A&M.
- The Vols outscored the Rebels by 33 points on one less possession.