By Alex Norman
The commonly held view was that Tennessee, losers of 8 of their previous 10 games, would be a quick out at the SEC Tournament.
But if we learned anything about this Vols basketball team, it is to expect that they won’t go quietly.
In Tennessee’s first game in Nashville, against rival Vanderbilt, the Vols rallied in the second half and stunned the Commodores 67-61.
“We haven’t played well quite a few times this year. But we have played the right way in regard to competing and playing to the final buzzer, sharing the basketball and all those things we got to do to even have a chance to win,” said Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall. “Even when we were down 12 or 13 with eight to go, we said in the huddle, ‘We’re going to find a way to win this game, just keep grinding.’ And our team did that. There’s no quit in this team.”
Senior guard Josh Richardson has been the leader of this team since the start of practice, and those leadership qualities were on display midway through the second half. During a timeout, with the Vols down double digits and the season slipping away, he had a talk with his teammates.
“I just said that we were playing like we didn’t want to be here, like we didn’t know how to play basketball,” said Richardson. “I told them we were going to be on our way home if we didn’t turn it around. I think we definitely picked it up right after that timeout.”
With under 6:30 remaining the Vols started a run to remember with a sophomore guard Robert Hubbs III three-pointer. That brought Tennessee (16-15) within 9. On their next possession Kevin Punter hit a 3 of his own, and UT was only down 6. The momentum was squarely on the Vols side.
With 4:30 to go it was Derek Reese knocking down a triple, and Tennessee was within 3.
The Vols would make a free throw and with 3:17 remaining, and when Hubbs converted a layup the game was even at 59. That capped a 12-0 run and it was anyone’s contest.
With 2:13 to go and the game tied at 61, Richardson drew two defenders to him, passed the ball back to Hubbs for a three in the corner. It was the biggest shot of the game, and gave Tennessee a lead they would not relinquish.
“I just had to bring some energy to my team,” said Hubbs, who tied a career high with 16 points. “We needed a pick up when we were down 12. So if I got a free look, I was going to take it. Coach said treat this game like it’s free balls. That’s what we did at the end there. They went in, so I kept shooting them.”
Vanderbilt (19-13) was in panic mode. On the Commodores next possession they failed to even get a shot off before the shot clock ran out.
Tennessee would finish the game on an unlikely 20-2 run, earning them a spot in the SEC quarterfinals, and a date with Arkansas on Friday, March 13th. The Vols and Razorbacks split two meetings this season, with each team winning on their own home floor.