For the second time this season Space nailed a 3-pointer at crunch time to give Texas A&M a dramatic defeat of the Vols. He turned the trick Jan. 11 in Knoxville, transforming a 56-54 deficit into a 57-56 win. He turned the same trick Saturday in College Station, turning a 65-all tie into a 68-65 overtime victory.
It was, to quote baseball great Yogi Berra, "déjà vu all over again."
From the Vol perspective, it was a kick in the teeth all over again.
"It was kind of heartbreaking, the way we lost in Knoxville," senior Jeronne Maymon said on the post-game show, "then to come out here and lose the same way."
Space, a 6-foot-9 inside player, has made just nine of 34 treys all season. Four of the successes have come against the Vols, including the two game-winners. Saturday's trey was especially unlikely as he had to step back and launch over 6-foot-8 Vol Jarnell Stokes.
Making this loss especially gut-wrenching was the fact the Vols appeared to have the game won … not once, but twice in the final seconds of regulation. With Tennessee down 59-57, Antonio Barton hit an apparent game-winning 3-pointer with 0:0.9 seconds left. Martin had called timeout with 2.4 seconds left, however, a split second before Barton unloaded, nullifying the basket.
"We just didn't flow into what we were trying to do," Martin explained, "so I called the timeout. I didn't really see the shot go up. I looked over at the ref (and said) ‘Time out! Time out!' Then the shot went in."
The Vols regrouped during the timeout, however, and produced another clutch basket. A brilliant 40-foot bounce pass from Josh Richardson on the ensuing inbounds play resulted in a game-tying layup by Jarnell Stokes. Fouled on the shot, Stokes could win the game by completing the three-point play. He missed the free throw, however, sending the game to overtime.
Jamal Jones opened the extra period with a pair of foul shots for A&M but Richardson answered with two for Tennessee. An eight-foot bank shot by Jordan McRae gave Tennessee a 63-61 lead but Jones tied the score with a short jumper of his own. Jordan Green gave A&M a 65-63 lead with 42.4 seconds left by sinking an 18-footer that swished at the shot-clock buzzer. Two Barton free throws tied the score with 15.5 seconds left, setting the stage for Space's dramatic game-winner.
Tennessee (16-11 overall and 7-7 in SEC play) slips to 2-10 in games decided by nine points or less. The Vols had to rally down the stretch to make this one close, however. Trailing 57-49 with three minutes left, Tennessee appeared doomed when it suffered back-to-back turnovers by Maymon (lost ball) and Jordan McRae (traveling call).
McRae hit a pair of foul shots, however, then Richardson converted a steal into a dunk. After two foul shots by Jones, Maymon scored inside and Stokes hit a pair of free throws with 25.6 seconds left to trim the deficit to 59-57. A&M's Alex Caruso missed the front end of a one-and-one with 14.3 seconds remaining, setting the stage for the wild finish to regulation.
Despite the loss, Martin was proud that his team outscored the Aggies 10-2 over the final three minutes to force the overtime.
"We did our part," the coach said. "Jarnell missed the free throw but we felt good about it going into overtime. Our guys had energy and good emotion right then. We just didn't capitalize in overtime."
Tennessee lost despite big games from its Big Three. McRae hit 6 of 14 shots and scored 20 points. Stokes was 6 of 10 en route to 16 points and 16 rebounds. Maymon was 7 of 9 from the field on his way to 16 points and 13 rebounds. Richardson chipped in 11 points.
As happened one week earlier in a loss at Missouri, Stokes dominated in the first half (5 of 7 field goals) only to be neutralized in the second half (1 of 3 field goals).
"I think that comes down to being able to make perimeter shots," Martin said. "What happens is, those (A&M) guys really started hovering around (Stokes and Maymon). Those guys did a really good job of battling, getting offensive rebounds and keeping balls alive. But it's a case where you've got to be able to make some shots from the perimeter."
Tennessee failed miserably in that regard, making just 1 of 7 from behind the arc in the second half and 3 of 15 for the game. The Aggies, by comparison, made 7 of 17.
The inability to get the ball to Stokes wasn't the Vols' only second-half failure. They couldn't defend during the final 20 minutes, either. After limiting A&M to 39.4 percent shooting (13 of 33) from the field in the first half, Tennessee allowed 59.1 percent (13 of 22) thereafter.
"I thought we started opening up those (driving) lanes a lot, and we didn't do a good job of keeping those guys in front of us," Martin said.
Whereas Tennessee dominated inside, A&M prevailed on the perimeter. Guards Caruso (14 points), Jones (14 points) and Fabyon Harris (13) combined to produce 41 points for the Aggies, who improve to 15-11 overall and 7-7 in league play.
Tennessee's weak bench was exploited yet again. A&M reserves sank 8 of 15 shots and combined for 21 points. Vol reserves were 0 for 8 and combined for two points.
Tennessee returns to action Wednesday night, visiting Mississippi State.