Determined Volunteers are champions of SEC basketball

Marvin Westwestwords

The big and beautiful championship of Southeastern Conference basketball is all wrapped up in orange and white.

Tennessee’s 64-57 victory at South Carolina did not come easy. Rick Barnes said it was a slugfest. The Gamecocks refused to give up and get out of the way.

Clutch free throws sealed the deal. Dalton Knecht made five threes and scored 26 points. Defense was decisive. The Vols hit only 35 percent. Yes, that was enough because this “heart and soul” team simply was not going to lose.

“Great day to be a Tennessee Volunteer,” said Barnes.

The coach had several reasons to celebrate. The Vols have won seven in a row. The record is 14-3 in SEC play. The team is ranked fourth in the country. It could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a bigger bundle of bonus cash.

Barnes gets $400,000 for the league title. Some, on this joyous occasion, will insist he is worth it.

The show continues Saturday at Food City Center. It will be Senior Day. Much-improved Kentucky will try to spoil the party. Tipoff is set for 4. Tickets are very expensive.

After that adventure, Tennessee will have a day or two to rest before it appears in the SEC tournament in Nashville. It is blessed with a double-bye.

The Vol victory over South Carolina was an equalizer. The Gamecocks won in Knoxville. That was a shock. Barnes said his team lacked focus that night. It missed a mess of layups and eight free throws. Zakai Zeigler missed all six field-goal tries. Jonas Aidoo didn’t do much. Tennessee lost the rebound battle. Later we learned Carolina had a very strong team.

This game in several ways was similar. It was really rugged, a heavyweight fight. Officials watched several rounds without doing much whistling.

Eventually, they called a few fouls. Tennessee cashed in – 19 of 22 free throws. Carolina didn’t get a comparable number. It made five of 10. Home fans fretted.

There were other differences. Zeigler was very different. He scored 13, had five rebounds, seven assists and one turnover. Aidoo was different, too. He scored 14 and led with nine rebounds.

Tennessee never trailed. It finished the first half with a 16-5 run and went to intermission with a 35-24 lead. It did not shoot as well in the second half (two of 13 in the worst streak, 28 percent overall). The Gamecocks had trouble running their offense.

The Vols led by 11 with 4:27 remaining but the home team did not surrender. The advantage was down to three, 59-56, with 1:14 to play. The sellout crowd got all excited.

Tennessee’s poise was perfect. Santiago Vescovi hit two free throws. Ziggy hit two free throws. Josiah-Jordan James hit two free throws. Game over.

“That was an unbelievable college basketball game,” said Barnes. “Two teams just fought their hearts out.”

The coach said he was oh, so proud of the victory and the championship. In truth, it was no surprise. As far back as October, the Vols were picked as the top team in the SEC.

Barnes never took anything for granted.

“I’m so blessed. The good Lord has blessed me with a group of guys that I think anybody in the country would want to coach.”

He again gave credit to Santi and Josiah and Ziggy. He said from the time the team returned in the summer, before the foreign trip, they talked about things to come.

“They’ve done such an incredible job leading.”

Barnes warmed up for Senior Day. He said he’s really going to miss Jo and Santi.

“They mean a lot to me … They make me look good … When they know I’m frustrated with some things, they have a way of saying ‘Coach, we got it.’

“They know me better than anybody. It’s a blessing for me to have both of those guys for five years.”

Barnes repeated what he has often said about how hard the team has worked.

“And putting up with me every day, especially Jo and Santi … there were times they probably hated me … but the fact is there is a special bond with this group.”

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is


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