Georgia was better than Tennessee for nearly the entire day in Saturday’s regular-season finale for each team.
But not when it mattered.
With star Grant Williams fouled out on the bench, Tennessee turned to emotional leader and actual unicorn, Admiral Schofield. The junior forward has been hot in the last few games, but in the final moments of Saturday’s frustrating battle, he was a monster. Steals, dunks, and fading jump shots brought the sold out Thompson-Boling Arena to what has to be record-shattering decibel levels. The Admiral grinned, flexed and visibly enjoyed every second.
For the first time in ten years, Tennessee can claim a share of the SEC Championship. This is a massive moment of validation for the work Rick Barnes is doing on Rocky Top.
23 regular season wins at this “football school” is rare air. Cut down a net with those wins? It’s significant, especially for a coach some considered too old to start over, coaching a team of largely unheralded players. But here we are.
The game was true to the classic victory formula for Tennessee, with gagging 2nd half defense (only 19 UGA points allowed in the 2nd half), major contributors off the bench and an emerged leader in Schofield. The energy in Thompson Boling Arena seemed to carry the team through the final Georgia push, with the fans and players clearly locked together. It was deafening.
A particularly cool moment that fans should remember forever came during a timeout with 12 minutes left. Somebody started yelling “12 minutes! Lock the doors!” Then, Vol basketball legend Ron Slay walked out to the middle of the floor. “Give these boys what they want!” Slay insisted, over and over, while strutting Laos around the arena, and the sold-out crowd responded. It was a total Braveheart moment that this writer will never forget.
In the aftermath of the 66-61 win, Rick Barnes took the arena mic, led chants, requested a round of Rocky Top and drew wild cheers when he smiled a rare smile and said, “Not bad for a team picked to finish thirteenth in the SEC, eh?” This is after Barnes took the mic with under five minutes to go to ask the crowd to keep its composure after a bottle was thrown on the court. “We have plenty of time,” he urged.
So now, this young team must quickly navigate YET ANOTHER milestone of success, only this one is exponentially bigger. The maturity flop after the UK sweep was concerning and turned into a pair of quick losses. Tennessee has to look at that moment and adjust now, heading into tournament play. Luckily, its historic finish secures a double-bye in next week’s SEC tournament. And any level of success in St Louis only sweetens and strengthens Tennessee’s résumé for NCAA seeding.
For tonight, though, there’s nothing left to prove in the 2018 regular season. Every new coach, everywhere, says they plan to win championships, but most never cut a net down. Rick Barnes also came to his new job to win championships. And now he has one. But his post-game message was resounding. The Vols still have work to do.
Former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl congratulated his former school after the game. Pearl’s Auburn Tigers share the SEC regular season championship with the Vols. Auburn and Tennessee have double-byes and will play on Friday in St. Louis.
— Bruce Pearl (@coachbrucepearl) March 4, 2018