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SEC Champions: The Fate We Make

I was 16 rows back in the upper deck yesterday. It’s the farthest from the action I’ve ever been for anything at Thompson-Boling, which was packed seat for seat in all directions for several rows beyond that. The arena’s capacity is sometimes thought of as a weakness. But when it actually meets capacity, especially without any Kentucky fans, it can rock and sway in a manner that lives up to the blood it shares with Neyland.

For a long time yesterday, the arena was just angry. The officiating wasn’t kind, and neither were we. And neither was Georgia: for a team ranking 324th in three-point shooting, they certainly love playing Tennessee. The Dawgs went 6-of-14 from the arc in Athens, bolstering them to an 11-point win. In our game preview I said I’d like to see them do that again. No problem: Georgia hit seven of their first eleven threes in Knoxville.

The officiating and the hot shooting screamed, “This just isn’t our day.” And hey, sometimes in basketball it’s not. Many of Georgia’s first half buckets were well defended and/or shots we wanted them to take. Credit the Dawgs for knocking them down.

When Tennessee got it going, they did so with a lot of the same stuff that’s brought them this far. The Vols stayed committed on the defensive end, and Georgia’s 42 first half points turned into just 19 in the second. The Dawgs didn’t score in the last three minutes, turning it over three times in that span. Meanwhile Tennessee continued to play with purpose on offense. Grant Williams had 22 points in 27 minutes, and Admiral Schofield had 23.

PB&J had 15 of Tennessee’s 21 made shots. Five of the other six were threes from Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner. And the Vols had 15 assists (a 71.4% assist percentage) and four turnovers. That’s Tennessee’s best basketball: create opportunities for Williams and Schofield, knock down enough threes to keep them honest, and defend your butt off.

And then, when Grant Williams fouled out on one of the most ridiculous calls I’ve ever seen with the Vols down one, Rick Barnes stepped to the microphone. He was addressing whoever threw something onto the floor, but he led with something for everyone: “We’ve got plenty of time.”

Plenty of time without Grant Williams? Plenty of time when Yante Maten followed up with a three?

Yep.

Even with their best player on the bench, Tennessee’s defense still shined. And it turns out you’re still pretty good when Admiral Schofield is your best player on the floor.

In the end, Tennessee got the rings, the banner, and the scissors. Your season ends quickly in college basketball. 67 teams will make the NCAA Tournament only to lose there. You celebrate making the Sweet 16, but as we found out in 2010, you can ride plenty of emotions there too. One of Tennessee’s greatest wins and most heartbreaking losses came 48 hours apart those eight years ago. It’s the nature of the beast in postseason play.

And so, unless you’re a fan of one of seven or eight schools that regularly go to the Final Four, you cling to and celebrate the tangible things in college basketball when you get them. And while it would be great for the Vols to win their first SEC Tournament since 1979, the regular season title – earned over two grueling months instead of one quick weekend – is by far the greater accomplishment.

We may run into a game early in St. Louis and/or the NCAA Tournament where it once again just isn’t our night. It happens, and if it happens to us it’ll be disappointing. But this team now has something that can’t be swept away in such a loss. This program has secured the lasting memory that’s escaped football and men’s and women’s basketball for 8-10 years. They did it from 13th in the media poll, and they finished it with the toughness we’ve come to expect.

And they did it at home, in a game with clearer stakes and higher drama than most I’ve seen in that building. The Vols simply don’t have an opportunity to win a league with Kentucky and, recently, Florida very often, and especially not at home on the last day of the regular season. But this time they did, and despite Georgia’s best efforts, they made a memory.

On that note:

My favorite games at Thompson-Boling:

  1. 2006: Tennessee 80 #2 Florida 76 – In Pearl’s first year, the win at Texas got everyone talking, and got them to show up for this game in early January. You ever think something is probably too good to be true but show up anyway just in case? That was this game. The late save by Dane Bradshaw announced Tennessee’s arrival on the national stage, and they wouldn’t leave it for the next six years.
  2. 2010: #16 Tennessee 76 #1 Kansas 68 – I feel like enough time has passed here that we have to remind everyone that this was the suspended version of the Elite Eight Vols, playing their second game without four players. Chism, Maze, Prince, and Hopson beat Kansas, but not without Woolridge, Kenny Hall, and McB43.
  3. 1999: Tennessee 68 #13 Kentucky 61 – The closest comparison to yesterday, the Vols hosted UK on the last day of the regular season and beat them at TBA for the first time in six years, clinching the SEC East. The first time I saw us beat Kentucky.
  4. 2010: #19 Tennessee 74 #2 Kentucky 65 – The Wall/Cousins Kentucky squad had lost only once when they came into Knoxville, the first visit from Calipari as the coach in Lexington. This too is about degree of difficulty; same with the 06-07 Gators, I remember watching these guys in warmups and thinking about how perfectly we’d have to play to win. And we did.
  5. 2007: Tennessee 86 #5 Florida 76 – The Pat Summitt cheerleader game, featuring one of the best teams the Vols have ever played against…and the Vols led by as many as 27 points. This just felt like everything Tennessee was supposed to be with Fulmer, Summitt, and Peyton Manning in attendance just weeks after his first Super Bowl. It’s a moment frozen in time for the athletic department a decade later.
  6. 2018: #16 Tennessee 66 Georgia 61 – This is where I’d put yesterday, though I’d agree with the notion that the Schofield dunk was one of the loudest moments in TBA history. I think the 2006 Florida game was slightly louder (and had a few thousand more voices in attendance), but not by much.
  7. 2000: #11 Tennessee 105 #7 Auburn 76 – The Tigers were on the preseason cover of Sports Illustrated, but got obliterated in Knoxville in Ron Slay’s freshman coming out party. My freshman year at UT.
  8. 2013: Tennessee 88 #25 Kentucky 58 – A 30-point beat down of Kentucky is still the most surreal game on this list.
  9. 2000: #8 Tennessee 76 #12 Florida 73 (OT) – A student section favorite, the Vols beat Florida in double overtime in Gainesville, then won in overtime in Knoxville with Tony Harris injured (but healthy enough to come off the bench in a fight). These Vols would earn a share of the SEC title; these Gators would make the Final Four. I don’t think I loved to hate any team more than the Dupay-Bonner-Haslem-Miller Gators during my time at UT.
  10. 2016: Tennessee 84 #20 Kentucky 77 – Down 21 in the first half, Barnes’ first team rallied for a signature win over the Wildcats.

December home games aren’t kind for clergy, so I wasn’t there for Lofton-over-Durant or his takedown of Memphis the week before, as well as some near misses like the UNC game this year. This is just my list. What’s yours, and where did yesterday rank if you were there?

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