Lamonte Turner just made his second three-point shot of the game to put the Vols up 55-53 for their first lead since the early minutes of the game. The crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena erupted as every single UT fan rose to their feet in a frenzy. The Vols, a team we all know that was picked in the preseason to finish second-to-last in the conference, were on their way to a huge comeback win against the rival Georgia Bulldogs.
A share of the regular-season SEC Championship was in sight.
Within just a few possessions, Vols forward Grant Williams recorded his fourth and fifth fouls on some pretty terrible calls - resulting in his removal from the game. Immediately after Williams was put on the bench, Bulldogs forward Yante Maten nailed his first three-pointer of the game to increase Georgia’s lead to two possessions, 61-57.
Before Maten hit that trey, the fans (and the players and coaches) in Thompson-Boling were pissed. The refs had been making questionable calls all game, but none were more apparent than the call on Williams’ fifth foul that took him out of the game.
The stadium shook from the amount of boos coming from the crowd. “REF YOU SUCK!” chants began to emit from frustrated fans. The Tennessee Volunteer pride was on full display and I must admit, I even joined in on the official-obliteration at one point.
This scenario was all too familiar for Vols fans. So often have we been so close to victory - to greatness - just to have it snatched away in the most dramatic and cancerous way possible. Within minutes, the Vols had gone from a two-point lead to trailing by four and playing without their best player.
The situation hit a head when a water bottle was tossed onto the court, prompting Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes to grab the microphone, tellings the fans not to throw objects on the court and that “we still have plenty of time.”
Without a doubt, he was right. Barnes not only settled down a sold-out crowd of over 21,000 people, but he also settled down the most important 13 people in the building.
Even though Maten’s three-pointer seemed like a dagger to fans, it didn’t have near the effect on the players as they took on the personality of their calm and collected head coach. The Vols dribbled down on the following possession and Turner hit his third trey of the game to bring the Vols within one, 61-60.
Watching that orange, leather sphere glide through the bone-white, nylon net was an act of grace, an object of pure beauty - and a huge sense of relief.
Over the past decade, we have been unfortunate witnesses to some of the most catastrophic endings/collapses throughout all of the sports programs in school history. Yes, there has been excitement and competition, but rarely (since 2009) have we been able to hang a banner and state that we are the best.
From Mt. Cody’s two blocked field goal kicks, Draymond Green’s game-winning layup and the following Bruce Pearl scandal, the Dooley years, the struggles of the baseball program, Pat Summit’s leaving the Lady Vols and her subsequent, tragic death, and now coming off the worst football season in school history - Vols fans everywhere were dying for this moment.
Sure, comparing the different sports of football/basketball/baseball/Lady Vols is apples to oranges, but comparing the love and commitment to your city, your program, your state - is not. The same passion, dedication, love, and amount of work is required from each individual and we all bleed the same color in the end.
Before last night, we were a desperate fan base. One in need of something to hang our collective hats on. Now that is over, and we are a determined fan base. A fan base determined to see this moment as a stepping stone that hopefully leads into a better future.
Turner’s three was more than just a clutch shot. It was a symbol of progress of a team that just a couple of weeks ago in the same position, had just as much a chance of turning the ball over or committing a costly foul to put the game out of reach. This team is ready for the NCAA and SEC tournaments, and hopefully this success will permeate into the other programs.
Except the Lady Vols’ softball program. They are just always badass.
Thank you, Rick Barnes and the 2017 Tennessee Men’s Basketball team. My 2018 SEC Championship t-shirt fits perfectly in large.