Tennessee fell behind late in a hostile environment on Saturday night, allowing Arizona to build a ten point lead after playing the Wildcats tight all night. Things felt like they were wrapping up for the night, until Zakai Zeigler and Tyreke Key each splashed home a three.
The Volunteers cut it down to one with just a couple of minutes to play, but Pelle Larsson connected on an and-one to stop Arizona’s bleeding. And then a wild sequence played out. Santiago Vescovi went to the basket and ended up on the ground after contact, and then Tyreke Key got decked going after the rebound.
All of that happened directly in the face of a referee, who swallowed his whistle and let things play.
It was the cherry on top for Tennessee, who had been dealing with a rather large free throw number difference all night long. The Volunteers shot 8-10 from the charity stripe. Arizona? Well, they shot 24-27.
You don’t have to be a basketball analyst to figure out the difference in this one.
“I have a lot of respect for these three officials,” Rick Barnes said after the game. “I’ve known them for a long time but not real happy because I didn’t see it that way. And I don’t want to take anything away from Arizona. We were going inside as much as they were and I don’t know. I don’t know what to say other than I thought a couple plays at the end— it’s going to be tough for us to look at. I know when we get that on tape it’s going to be tough to look at them with our players.”
Tennessee was called for 24 fouls against Arizona’s 15. Frankly, outside of that stat, the rest of the game was fairly even. The Volunteers held Arizona to 20 percent shooting from three-point range while both sides connected at a 42 percent clip from the field. Arizona won the rebounding battle inside, but Vescovi, Zeigler and Key were able to make up for that with their scoring.
But with all of the opportunities at the free throw line, it clearly wasn’t enough. Barnes refused to put too much blame on the referees, but he was clearly frustrated with that sequence at the end.
“Again, I don’t want to take anything away from Arizona because in games like this they’re hard fought and I know those guys are trying to work hard but that one play at the end where Santi went down the court and all three guys said they didn’t see it,” Barnes said. “That’s tough to take at that point in time. Like I said, I’ve got great respect for those guys. I’ve been around them but certainly there was a wide difference in free throws tonight.”
It’s not really like Barnes to call out the refs like this, so it’s notable that he felt the need to speak out. He was working them over all night long, but clearly felt like his team got the short end of the stick.
That aside, this was still an impressive effort from Tennessee, once again doing it without Josiah-Jordan James. Arizona is one of the best teams in the country, and that arena was rocking last night. The Volunteers didn’t blink, and frankly played well enough to win. Things just didn’t break their way.