Finishing flops vex Volville

Folks who enjoy happy endings might be wise to attend a Walt Disney movie. Certainly, they need to steer clear of University of Tennessee sporting events because happy endings have been in short supply on The Hill lately.

It all started with last fall's Vol football team. After trouncing Vanderbilt and Kentucky by identical 24-0 scores to conclude the regular season, the Big Orange seemed to be on a roll as it headed into a Peach Bowl matchup with lightly regarded Maryland. The game turned out to be a laugher, all right, but it was the wrong team laughing. The Terrapins dominated a listless Tennessee team for four quarters, winning 30-3 in what ranks as probably the ugliest and most discouraging Vol performance of the Phillip Fulmer coaching era.

Shortly after the football team went into the tank, the men's basketball team caught fire. A six-game winning streak in February included upsets of nationally ranked Georgia and Florida, earning Buzz Peterson's Vols some big-time attention. Although Buzz' bunch struggled down the stretch, they still entered the Southeastern Conference Tournament needing just one victory to secure an 18-win season and lock up an NCAA Tournament bid.

That's when two things happened mere hours apart that doomed the Big Orange. First, Georgia withdrew from the SEC Tournament in response to reports of widespread NCAA rules violations within the program. Then UT senior guard Jon Higgins was ruled ineligible for the league tourney because he hadn't passed the required six hours of classwork during the fall semester.

Georgia's withdrawal from the tourney changed the seedings in a way that punished Tennessee. Instead of a first-round matchup with struggling Ole Miss, the Vols had to take on Auburn, another NCAA ''bubble'' team facing a must-win situation.

Minus Higgins, the Vols played poorly in losing to Auburn, then played even worse in a homefloor setback to Georgetown in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. To plummet from where Tennessee was soaring in February to where it crash-landed in March was almost criminal. All of the progress Peterson's program made was forgotten. All that anyone remembered was the bitter disappointment of blowing an NCAA Tournament bid, then rolling over and playing dead in the NIT.

Still, no disappointment was more bitter than the one experienced by Peterson's female counterpart, Pat Summitt. Her Lady Vol basketball team blew through the Women's NCAA Tournament field like a tornado, winning by an average margin of nearly 20 points per game en route to the finals.

Everything pointed to a Tennessee title. For one thing, the Lady Vols boasted a veteran team, led by seniors Gwen Jackson and Kara Lawson. Championship Game foe Connecticut, meanwhile, was built around junior Diana Taurasi and a group of still-wet-behind-the-ears freshmen.

In addition, Tennessee had a significant mental edge. The Lady Vols clearly outplayed UConn in the nationally televised regular-season meeting at Hartford, only to blow the game with a lethal lapse in the closing minutes. Moreover, with the rematch in Atlanta, Tennessee would have the vast majority of the crowd on its side.

Yet, inexplicably, the Lady Vols came out tentative on offense and leadfooted on defense in the title game. Their deadheaded display allowed UConn to build its confidence and build a 13-point lead. Although Tennessee rallied late to make the final score respectable, that didn't soften the disappointment. The Lady Vols lost to a lesser team, and they knew it.

Just in case there wasn't enough heartache to go around in Big Orange Country, the Vol baseball team hit the grand slam of disappointment in May. Tennessee entered a three-game, regular season-ending series at Vanderbilt needing just one victory to clinch a spot in the SEC playoffs and, almost certainly, a regional tournament bid.

After losing handily in Games 1 and 2 of the series, the Vols were one out away from victory in the finale. Incredibly, they lost on Ñ get this Ñ a two-out, two-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. That roundtripper catapulted Vandy into the SEC Tournament and ushered Tennessee out of it.

Has there ever been a school year which saw the football team, the basketball team, the women's basketball team and the baseball team finish on such decidedly sour notes?

Probably not.

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