Tennessee had pretty much stayed out of the dramatic fray of the college basketball season so far, winning all of its home games and dropping every one of its road contests heading into Saturday's matchup with No. 21 Texas A&M. The Vols weren't able to avoid it for long, though, and the outcome was a lesson in just how thin the margin of error is for this young team.
After leading for 34 minutes, Tennessee stumbled down the stretch, making just two of its last 11 shots and turning the ball over a combined 18 times to allow the Aggies to claw back from a double digit deficit to take the lead for good. Texas A&M outscored the Vols 18-4 down in the last 4:12 of the game to steal a 92-88 road win and give the Vols their first home loss under Rick Barnes.
"The way we turned it over led to too many easy baskets there at the end," Barnes said. "We just didn't make the plays we needed to make. Those turnovers and those run-outs, again, there's such a fine line and we know there's a lot of things we can't control. We just can't turn it over the way we did tonight."
The loss came despite six Vols scoring in double figures to compile a lead that ballooned to as many as 13 in the second half before Texas A&M made a late 13-1 run to close out the comeback win. The game served as a continuation of a coming out party for Tennessee's deep freshman nucleus, with Admiral Schofield and Shembari Phillips both showing just how pivotal they can be to the future success of the team. Schofield finished with 16 points while Phillips ended the game with a career-high 15 points in 19 minutes.
"Coach told me to just be aggressive and they were a lot bigger, Phillips said. "Definitely when they were in the zone, I tried to drive the ball and just draw fouls. That's what I was able to do."
It was Kevin Punter who ended up leading Tennessee in scoring despite starting the first half with just two points. The senior point guard dropped 17 second-half points to help build a commanding lead that bounced between 6-13 points until Texas A&M took over the game. Behind a game-high 27 points from Jalen Jones and a solid 13-point, seven-assist performance by guard Alex Caruso, the Aggies went on an 11-0 run late, capped by a score in the post by Tyler Davis to capture the lead.
After two Anthony Collins free throws extended the lead to four, Punter knocked down a corner 3-pointer with 31 seconds left to make it 89-88. Caruso was able to close it out with a free throw and a Detrick Mostella 3-point attempt bounced out of the rim with less than 10 seconds left to secure a 92-88 Texas A&M win. Mostella ended with 10 points.
"You have to give A&M a lot of credit," Barnes said. "I think their experience kept them in the game the whole game. I can't say enough really about Alex Caruso. He's the player that every coach would like to have. He does so many things to disrupt your team."
The Aggies shot 65 percent from the field in the second half, matching Tennessee's torrid first half pace while also finally getting comfortable in the post against an undersized Vols lineup that once again started five guards. The loss showcased Tennessee's struggles in transition defense and how the Vols are still learning how to close out games
"It's a tough loss," Barnes said. "The first thing I told our guys when I went in the locker room was we've got a good team. We've got to understand, again, we can't help people out by turning the ball over."