Exciting game, gutty comeback, spectacular performance by Dalton Knecht – these are the things that save seasons.
Life on the road in the Southeastern Conference is a guaranteed adventure.
Tennessee tumbled from 14 up to 11 down but refused to give up the fight. An unbelievable finishing effort by the Volunteers delivered more heat than Georgia could handle. It lost, 86-79, thus ending a 10-game winning streak.
To the amazement of an enthusiastic sellout crowd (10,523), the visitors closed with a chilling 15-1 run. The Bulldogs missed 12 of their last 13 shots. Defensive pressure took a toll.
Knecht scored 36. Jonas Aidoo had 15 rebounds, 10 points and five blocked shots. Zakai Zeigler stopped throwing the ball away and put it in the basket. The net result was a dramatic, necessary triumph for a team that would be No. 1.
“That was an incredible, hard-fought college basketball game,” said Rick Barnes.
The coach shook his head several times and showered exclamations on officials before he became a very proud man.
“Just really proud of the way our guys executed, really on the defensive end. And obviously at the end of the game.”
Barnes said when Knecht “gets that look in his eye, he can do it – and he did. But it was the defense that really got us back into the game.”
Some improbable things happened along the way. Despite six turnovers by Ziggy, Tennessee had a 42-28 lead with four minutes and change to go in the half. The Vols were dominating on the backboards and Georgia was shooting something less than 30 percent.
Tennessee suddenly slumped. It missed seven consecutive shots. The Bulldogs scored nine points. The Vols were still on top at intermission, 42-37, but the mood had changed.
It changed some more. Georgia opened the second half with back-to-back threes and grabbed the lead. Fans shouted whoopee and sensed an upset was happening.
Knecht missed a layup. The Bulldogs hit another three. Tennessee trailed, 69-58. It looked like a sure loser.
Georgia lost some of its edge. It fouled and made other mistakes. The Vols seemed to turn up defensive intensity a notch but it missed four free throws. Santiago Vescovi hit a clutch three with 5:33 to go.
Knecht, indeed, flashed the eye of a tiger, as Barnes mentioned. Dalton was relentless. He got the Vols even at 78. He hit a giant three from the wing. Aidoo blocked another shot. Knecht and Zeigler wrapped up the victory with free throws.
There were no Tennessee turnovers in the closing five minutes.
Barnes said he had told his team this was going to be a tough game.
“The last thing I said, I want you to know these guys are a really, really good offensive team. We’re going to have to guard without fouling. We didn’t do that in the first half.”
Barnes got in a commercial for Georgia coach Mike White, brother of UT athletics director Danny White.
“Mike White, he’s an unbelievable coach. He’s done an incredible job everywhere he has been. And I knew they were going to fight us every step of the way.
“And when they got down, they didn’t flinch. They came right back and came out the second half and went right at us. And thankfully, the last four minutes, we were able to come out of here with a win.”
Georgia scored 42 points from long range. Jabri Abdur-Rahim led the losers with 21. Other Georgia guards were generally inaccurate.
Knecht hit 12 of 20 attempts (five of eight threes). He hit seven of nine free throws. He had four rebounds, three assists, a steal and a blocked shot. He played 33 minutes and lost the ball once. He was the best player on the floor.
Ziggy scored 18 and collected five rebounds and five assists. Josiah-Jordan James had another “off” game as a scorer – two of nine and 0-for-3 from three.
How to explain Knecht’s performances on the road?
“I have no idea,” said Barnes. “Maybe it is mindset, short memory, not afraid of the moment, willing to go for the big play and if he doesn’t make it, he’s got a great ability to bounce back.”
Barnes said when guys are good basketball players, good offensive guys, he has always believed it goes back to training, their work ethic, their passion and love for the game. The coach says Knecht does a lot of extra work.
Ah yes, work, the magic word. Barnes will try to correct some errors before Tuesday. Florida comes to Food City Center.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com