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Following a collapse against South Carolina, Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament hopes feel finished

This felt like the final nail.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be real — Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament hopes were on life support as the Vols walked into the Arena against South Carolina. Bad losses against Georgia and Texas A&M and blown opportunities against Kansas and Kentucky already had Tennessee in a bad spot for postseason play.

But Saturday night’s meltdown against South Carolina felt like the official backbreaker.

Tennessee took control of a tie game in the final minutes against the Gamecocks. John Fulkerson and Santiago Vescovi powered the Vols to a five point lead with about five minutes to play, but the offense fell apart from there.

Empty possessions ended up dooming Tennessee in Columbia as the Gamecocks capitalized with an open three and multiple trips to the free throw line. South Carolina improved their tournament resume, while Tennessee’s feels like it was put in the shredder.

The Volunteers still have chances to pick up key wins down the stretch with Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky and two games against Auburn left, but even if they’re able to capture a few of those, it feels like they’ve taken on too much water at this point.

And let’s face it, this inconsistent Tennessee is going to struggle over the final three weeks as the regular season draws to a close. The rest of the year is just about building towards next season, which will feature the addition of two five-star guards and a four-star wing. It’s perhaps the best Tennessee basketball recruiting class of all time, and these bumps in the road will only make John Fulkerson, Yves Pon and Santiago Vescovi better for the next go-around.

Tennessee has been dealt some tough cards this year, watching Jordan Bone and Grant Williams exit for the NBA early. Lamonte Turner then lost most of his season to injury.

Still, most felt like this was a team that would find its way into the NCAA Tournament. But that officially feels completely off the table, barring a run through the SEC Tournament.