You couldn’t draw up a more painful week of basketball if you tried for Tennessee. The Volunteers, who entered the week as the No. 6 team in the country still with a shot at a No. 1 seed, suffered two losses over the past four days — both coming by way of a buzzer-beater.
Vanderbilt beat Tennessee for the first time since 2017 with a corner three, then Missouri connected on a near half-court prayer to rub salt in the wound.
Saturday was tough all the way around for the Volunteers. Rick Barnes’ team found itself in a big hole at halftime, down 12 points to a Missouri team that started scorching hot from three-point range. The lead got all the way up to 17 at one point, but Tennessee didn’t lay down.
Multiple big three-pointers from Tyreke Key, huge boards from Tobe Awaka and some lights out defense sparked the Vols, who came all the way back to take the lead.
“You know what, honestly I’m really proud of the fight those guys put up in the second half,” Barnes said after the loss. “Missouri played terrific in the first half. The way we fought back, that group in the second half, again, I love it. It’s a different feeling than the one the other night.”
From down 17 to up 76-70 late, it was quite the comeback for Tennessee. At the time, it felt like this team was starting to come out of their funk. And then the late game mistakes came, once again.
Up three, Barnes opted to foul with just seconds remaining, choosing to guarantee a lead. Missouri made one of two from the line, and they put Santiago Vescovi on the line with just four seconds to go. Make one and you at least guarantee a tie, make two and we all head to the house.
Vescovi, just as he did on Wednesday night, missed the first. Tobe Awaka was called for a lane violation on the second, allowing Missouri to set up offense and get organized.
You know what happened next.
“We all hurt for Santi,” Barnes said. “He’s hurting. I hurt for him because he knows he had a chance, two games in a row, to put a game on ice. But he’s won a lot of games for us. I hate it for him. I do, because where we are today and where we’ve been, he’s had a lot to do with it.”
In the end, this one finished just how it started — with Missouri making tough shots. The Tigers were 8-16 in the first half from three point range. They finished 14-26, hitting one too many to take down the Volunteers.
Kobe Brown was brilliant with 21 points. Sean East helped build the initial lead with a huge first half. DeAndre Gholston, the man who hit the final shot, finished 4-5 from three.
“Think about it, they banked one in early,” Barnes said of Missouri’s hot shooting. “It’s not like we were lost too many times. That’s what they do. So again, they shot the ball extremely well. We’re going to run into teams like that.”
Injuries forced Tennessee to give different looks
Tennessee was playing without their glue guy, as Josiah-Jordan James was sidelined with an ankle injury. The injury happened on Wednesday against Vanderbilt, and James was spotted in a boot on Friday. Five-star freshman Julian Phillips suffered an injury in practice on Friday, but was able to give it a go on Saturday. However, after re-aggravating that hip injury in the first half, Phillips never returned.
This forced some new lineups to the floor for Tennessee, and cost them a lot of length. Zakai Zeigler’s foul trouble forced true freshman BJ Edwards into action in the first half.
Barnes went small early in the second half, and it worked. Zeigler-Vescovi-Key-Mashack-Awaka ended up being the combo that sparked a comeback as the Tennessee staff was forced to get creative.
“Hopefully, I think, we can grow from both of these situations, as hard as it is right now,” Barnes said optimistically. “The fact that we had a lineup that hasn’t practiced, played together, I’m proud of them. The fact they fought the way they did. We’re all disappointed that we lost. A lot of basketball left to play. I think we’re going to get it going. We need it now, to get it going at the right time. A lot of teams have gone through it this year. It’s hit us here, at a time when you don’t want it to. But we’ll grow from it.”
They’re going to have to grow fast — they welcome No. 3 Alabama to town on Wednesday night. After that, a trip to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky.
The sky isn’t falling just yet, but this is a big moment for this team. Which way are they going to go? Can they steer out of this? Remember, there was a point around this time last year where we had a similar feeling. That same group ended up catching fire and winning the SEC Tournament.
Rick Barnes has three weeks to get this thing back on the rails. The road out of this one looks difficult, but I’ve been surprised before.