Tennessee’s championship season hits a bump

Marvin Westwestwords

Close, but no cigar … Almost, but not quite … So near and yet so far … Not much joy finishing second.

Kentucky’s 85-81 victory left Tennessee stuck with a plentiful supply of consolation ointment. It may not heal all the hurt. The championship season simply did not end right. The seven-game winning streak is history. Disappointment was the net result.

After the determined run that won the SEC title, this was anticlimactic.

Indeed, the Volunteers fell short. They did not live up to their No. 4 national ranking. They did nothing to enhance their bid for a top seed in the NCAA tournament. They did not send out the seniors on a celebratory high. They had a terrible time guarding the three-point line.

Now hear this: They did not quit. They fought back from 14 behind to have an open long shot at a tying goal with a few seconds to go. That left the very talented and improving Wildcats in a state of shock. Three times the Vols took the ball from Kentucky in the closing minute.

“It doesn’t matter what the score is, they think they’re going to win,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari of the Volunteers. “They’re down nine and all of a sudden they’re figuring out how they try to win.”

For too much of the game, it was Dalton Knecht against all of the Wildcats. He scored 40.

“Knecht went absolutely bonkers on us,” said Calipari.

Critics will say the Vols again stood around waiting for Dalton to do it all. He didn’t have enough help. Zakai Zeigler gave great effort, missed too many shots but scored 17. He had nine assists and one turnover. He missed too much of the first half because of two fouls.

Jonas Aidoo scored 11, blocked five shots and claimed eight rebounds. Nobody else did anything else remarkable. Well, Josiah-Jordan James scored eight but had the misfortune of missing the final shot.

Rick Barnes blamed poor execution in the beginning on too much emotion.

“From that point on, we were just clawing our way back in. These guys keep fighting. Think about it, with us where we were, we still had a chance there at the end, but didn’t get it done.”

I’m almost certain this was the biggest victory of the year for Kentucky. It controlled the game for most of the afternoon. It hit 15 three-point shots and missed only 14.

The Wildcats played really tough on defense. There was a landmark in the first half when the Vols were five of 27. There was another when they went 3:38 without a goal. The low point was 31-20. Knecht responded with a nine-point resurrection. It was 33-29 at intermission.

Kentucky broke away from a 42-39 advantage to lead by 14. Knecht again raised the Vols into contention. A Ziggy three cut the deficit to five. The gap went back to 11 – 80-69. The game appeared to be over.

It wasn’t.

In the dramatic finish, Zeigler stole the ball in the backcourt, made a layup, drew a foul and hit a free throw. Forty-seven seconds remained.

Jahmai Mashack forced a turnover. James hit two free throws with :31 left. The Wildcats couldn’t get the ball across mid-court against the Vol press. The big Blue seemed near panic.

JJJ’s clutch shot hit the rim.

From start to finish, Tennessee had a very difficult time around the rim. The Wildcats blocked nine shots. The Vols shot 37 percent for the afternoon.

This may sting: Kentucky looked more likely to make the Final Four than Tennessee.

The Vols couldn’t contain freshmen Reed Sheppard and Justin Edwards and senior Antonio Reeves. They produced the 15 threes. Sheppard was amazing. He hit seven of 10. He scored 27.

Reeves scored 27, went three of five from long range and hit eight of nine free throws. Edwards made four threes and totaled 16 points.

Barnes was outspoken about the emotional overload.

“I told the guys after the game, I thought we were way too emotional at the start. We didn’t execute. Very impatient offensively. We were taking shots when we could have gotten more quality shots.”

After that, Barnes told the players he’s really proud of them.

“They fought hard. They’re regular season champions in the best league in the country. They are disappointed, but like I told them, we’ll learn from this. I hope we’re going to be in a lot more bigger games as the season goes on. And we can’t let our emotion get the best of us.”

Next stop: Tennessee will play Friday at 1 p.m. in the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. It will take three wins in three days to earn that title.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


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