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Tennessee keeps finding ways to come up big in crunch time

They’re such a tough out, thanks to outstanding depth.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive game, Tennessee has been pushed to the wire. Both times — somehow — the Vols found a way to come out on top. Wednesday night was trending towards a classic ‘Memorial Magic’ moment in Nashville, until Grant Williams decided that he was just going to have to do it by himself.

Williams ended the night with 43 points, going a perfect 23-23 from the free throw line to keep Tennessee breathing late. They were able to get it to overtime, then outlast the Commodores in the extra period.

“We’ve been in a lot of situations,” Rick Barnes said after the game. “Our non-league schedule through the years has helped us. I think now our guys realize we’re going to be in these type of games. And this is what we were used to a year ago. This is what we dealt with all the way down the stretch last year. We’ve been in some this year. We’ll continue to be in them.”

Down six with 90 seconds to play, this was easily Tennessee’s biggest hole to climb out of this year. They were aided by a technical foul call, which allowed Williams to pull off a four point play and bring the Vols to within two points.

It was just the latest example of Tennessee getting backed into a corner late, but still managing to come out on top. Building off of last year’s experience, the Vols have come up big late against Gonzaga, Florida, Alabama and now Vanderbilt. Even in their lone loss, Tennessee dug out of a five point hole late against Kansas to pull even. Unfortunately, that game was decided when Williams fouled out with a minute to play.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Barnes said. “Two years ago we were struggling for every single basket. We know it’s not a game of perfect, but we felt like we had to play perfect to win some games.”

Obviously, playing perfect is no longer a requirement for Tennessee to win basketball games. This team’s greatest asset is its depth, but as we saw last night, there are going to be days when nothing is falling. Usually though, someone on this team digs deep and steps up to the plate. Last night was Grant’s turn.

Admiral Schofield has shown us that he’s plenty capable of taking over a game — see Gonzaga for the best example. But in a big spot last night with plenty of good looks, Schofield couldn’t find the stroke. The same could be said for Jordan Bowden and even Jordan Bone late in the game, despite a fantastic first half from Bone.

Against Georgia, Arkansas and Missouri, we saw how good this team could be when everyone is clicking. Against Alabama and Vanderbilt, we saw how ugly things can be when just about nothing outside of Grant is working.

To cut down the nets this spring, Tennessee needs the team that was banging on all cylinders to start SEC play. That’s just not going to happen every single night. The good news is, Tennessee is battle tested and plenty comfortable in these ugly situations when everything isn’t going right.

That ability to come up big late no matter what is why Tennessee is No. 1 right now. It’s also why they have as good of a chance as anyone at a national title.