Despite a furious comeback from Arkansas in the second half, Tennessee finishes this season undefeated at home with a 78-74 win Saturday.
The Vols took a 50-29 lead — 21 points — into halftime, got outscored 45-28 in the game’s final 20 minutes and made Tennessee fans sweat this one through the end.
The first half was one of the better halves of basketball I’ve seen Tennessee play this year. Kennedy Chandler led the charge by scoring 12 of his 15 total points in the first half, with all four makes coming from behind the 3-point line. The Vols rebounded the ball well and the offense was fluid, underscored by the 19-13 advantage on the boards and the 11 assists on 14 made baskets.
UT got the favorable home whistle early but picked up four fouls in the final two minutes of the half that left each of the true post players — Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, Uros Plavsic, Jonas Aidoo and John Fulkerson — with at least two fouls going into halftime.
Pretty much everything Tennessee did well in the first half, it didn’t do well in the second half. The Vols turned the ball over 10 times in the second half after seven in the first half and surrendered 12 of Arkansas’ 16 total offensive rebounds after halftime.
A summary of the final five-to-six minutes of the game, but spoiler alert — things got hairy for the Vols.
Huntley-Hatfield scored two points on a dunk with about six minutes left that gave Tennessee a 71-54 lead. Arkansas rattled off a 16-2 run over the next four-ish minutes of the game. During that span, the only points UT scored were on two Jonas Aidoo free throws, while Zakai Zeigler had a couple critical turnovers and Kennedy Chandler missed the front end of a one-and-one. Somehow, this portion of the game felt simultaneously felt like it happened in the blink of an eye and would never end. Opposing teams’ scoring runs tend to feel like that.
John Fulkerson hit one of two FTs that made it a two possession game with 1:42 left. Then, Arkansas blew an errant outlet pass out of bounds, which was the play that I felt like really sealed this game for Tennessee. The Arkansas player was behind UT’s defense, but it would have had to been a pretty good pass and catch for the guy to come down with the ball and score it without his momentum carrying him out of bounds.
The two teams then traded out two free throws each, and super senior John Fulkerson missed a tough turn-around jumper, before Zakai Zeigler missed one of two at the free-throw line and failed to make it a two-score game. With 14 seconds left, Tennessee gave JD Notae space to operate for what was Arkansas’ final chance at the win, which is a understandable strategy for a sub-35 percent shooter when a foul and three made-FTs would have tied the game. Notae, thankfully, missed.
Overall, Arkansas finished the game on a 20-7 run during which all seven of Tennessee’s points came at the free throw line. The Vols went the final six minutes and three seconds of the game without making a shot from the field.
Chandler and Santiago Vescovi led Tennessee in scoring with 15 points each, while Zeigler added 13 and Josiah-Jordan James had 12. I mentioned a few Zeigler turnovers — he had four in the game — but he also led the team with six assists and notably handled the ball late in the game instead of Chandler. Chandler missed all three of his free-throw attempts, with all three coming in the second half.
UT finishes the season 16-0 at home and clinches a 2-seed in the SEC Tournament.