By scoring just seven points over the final 12 minutes of a 58-48 SEC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Alabama, Tennessee saw its destiny pass from its hands to the hands of the NCAA Selection Committee, which meets Sunday to determine the 68-team field for this year's national tournament.
So, while Bama (21-11) eagerly awaits Saturday's semifinal game against Florida, Tennessee (20-12) anxiously awaits word of its postseason fate. Those hours will not be pleasant.
"It's going to be terrible probably," sophomore guard Josh Richardson said. "I just want to know if we're going to be in or out right now but we'll sit here and wait, I guess."
"It'll be tough," junior guard Trae Golden agreed, "but I think we're an NCAA Tournament team. Hopefully, Sunday we'll get our name called. It's a tough position but you can't do nothing but live with it. You put yourself in that position, so that's what you've got to live with."
After a Jordan McRae 3-pointer narrowed Alabama's lead to 44-41 with 12:15 left, the Vols epitomized the term "ice cold." They went 2 for 15 from the field with three turnovers down the stretch, enabling the Crimson Tide to close the game on a 14-7 run that produced the 10-point victory.
Tennessee shot a chilly 32.1 percent from the field, including a putrid 24.1 percent (7 of 29) in the second half. The Vols made just 21.7 percent (5 of 23) from 3-point range. Although Bama deserves credit for contesting many of those shots, Tennessee also shot a mere 50 percent (7 of 14) on uncontested shots from the foul line. The 48-point output was the Vols' worst since they suffered a 46-38 loss at Virginia on Dec. 5.
Simply put: Tennessee laid an egg in the SEC Tournament. So, what else is new? The Vols have been so snake-bit in this event that they haven't won it since March of 1979, when head coach Cuonzo Martin was 7½ years old. No wonder many Big Orange fans believe the team is jinxed in regards to this tourney.
|Tennessee junior Jordan McRae attacks the basket against Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.|
"Man, we're not jinxed at all," senior Kenny Hall said. "It is what it is. We've just got to move forward and wait on Selection Sunday to hear our name called."
How confident is he the Big Orange will hear its name called?
"I'm definitely confident in the team," Hall said, noting that the selection committee will "take into consideration all the games we won, all the top-100 teams we beat. We're a hard-nosed basketball team and we don't have any real bad losses."
Richardson also believes the Vols are a Tournament-worthy squad.
"I feel like we're a Tournament team," he said. "I think our resume' proves it. We won nine of our last 11 games, and not a lot of teams in the nation can say they've done that. We played with the best teams in our conference, so I think we're fine.
Tennessee's four-guard lineup relies heavily on the production of its perimeter scorers, and this game was no different. With McRae (3 of 13), Golden (1 of 7) and McBee (1 of 6) combining to go 5 of 26, the offense ground to a halt.
"I go 1 for 7, and Jordan didn't knock down a few shots he usually hits," Golden said. "It makes it tough on Jarnell (Stokes) down there (in the post). Those are shots we always take; they just rimmed in and out for us, so what can you do about it?"
With McRae, Golden and McBee all struggling to connect from outside, the defensive-minded Richardson was forced to take up the slack. He scored 12 of his 16 points in the second half, almost single-handedly keeping Tennessee in the game.
"Against that zone, I definitely think we put up too many 3s," said Richardson, who was 1 of 3 beyond the arc. "After a couple of 'em didn't fall, we should've started penetrating.... They (Bama players) were baiting us into shooting 'em, and it worked."
Despite virtually no help from the perimeter scorers, Stokes still put up 12 points and 13 rebounds.
Although Bama's fullcourt press forced just 10 turnovers, it seemed to keep the Vols from finding a rhythm offensively. Tennessee rushed shots all day, missing a rash of layups and open looks from the perimeter.
"No shots were falling for us," Golden said. "We weren't necessarily taking the best shots, and it cost us. I had a few shots rattle in and out on me. It was just one of those nights where everything looks bad because shots aren't falling."
Check out InsideTennessee's video coverage of what several of the Vols had to say about the game from the locker room:
Here is a look at InsideTennessee's slideshow of the action (click to enlarge):