Thoroughly outplayed for three quarters, the Vols appeared ready to squander their SEC East lead and their berth in the SEC Championship Game. That thought was on a lot of minds, including Ainge's.
"Of course, it crosses your mind," he conceded. "But you don't think about it, saying, ‘Oh, if we lose, we've lost an opportunity.'"
Certainly, the odds were against the Vols overcoming a 15-point deficit in the final period. Tennessee had overcome a similar fourth-quarter deficit just once in school history, rallying from 17 down to nip LSU 30-27 in 2005. Ainge started that '05 game but watched from the bench as Rick Clausen engineered the comeback. This time Ainge did the honors himself.
"When the fourth quarter started and we were starting to play good, we KNEW we were going to win the football game," Ainge said. "We weren't saying, ‘I hope we can win.' I can speak for a lot of people: We genuinely KNEW we were going to win that football game."
Ainge did his part to spark a comeback. A seven-yard touchdown pass to Josh Briscoe narrowed the gap to 24-16 on the second play of the final period. A five-yard TD toss to Austin Rogers trimmed the deficit to 24-22 with 7:14 to play. Even when his two-point conversion pass to Quintin Hancock sailed high, Ainge never doubted that Tennessee would win.
Sure enough, a 45-yard punt return by Dennis Rogan and a 33-yard field goal by Daniel Lincoln gave Tennessee a 25-24 lead with 2:46 to go. The drama wasn't finished, however. Vandy's Bryan Hahnfeldt lined up a potential game-winning field goal with 37 seconds left. Vol fans held their breath. Not Ainge.
"If he had made field goal we had 35 seconds to go down and get in field-goal range," the senior quarterback said. "And we were ready. The offense was standing there ready to go back out."
Hahnfeldt's kick drifted wide left, preserving Tennessee's 25-24 victory. Had it split the uprights, however, Ainge is convinced the Vols still would've found a way to win.
"When we get in those situations we've been fortunate and we've gotten it done," he said. "We've won a lot more games like that than we've lost."
Had Tennessee lost, Ainge would've been a key contributor. He gave Vanderbilt three gift points with a poor play in the second quarter. With just 42 seconds left till intermission, he dropped back to pass. The only Vol in the open was tight end Chris Brown, who was clapping his hands and yelling for the ball in the left flat.
Ainge hurriedly fired the ball toward his tight end. The throw was a little too hard and a little behind Brown, bounding off his shoulder pads. Vanderbilt linebacker Patrick Benoist scooped up the loose ball – correctly ruled a lateral – and returned it 10 yards to the Vol 16-yard line. Three plays later Hahnfeldt booted a 33-yard field goal, bumping Vandy's halftime advantage to 17-9.
Ainge shouldered the blame for the mishap.
"That's just one of those things," he said. "I was about to throw the ball away, and Chris was wide open standing there. When you get out of the realm of what you practice and what you're supposed to do, that's when things like that happen. That's definitely on me. You've just got to do what you practice – throw it away, tuck it and run, do something like that."
Although he was upset by the costly lateral, Ainge insists he did not let his disappointment linger for long.
"I can bounce back. I wasn't worried," he said. "I think other people get more worried that I'm going to let that affect how I play later…. Thank God they only got three points out of it."
Tennessee's offense sputtered and wheezed for much of the afternoon, mustering just 9 points and 226 total yards through the first three quarters. Ainge was more annoyed than concerned by the offensive showing.
"It's not always great. It's not always perfect," he said. "I thought Vanderbilt did a good job on defense. We made enough plays to keep it close. Then when it matters – when it's close and it's on the line – we're going to get it done…. We know we can turn it on. It's just a matter of executing and being sharp mentally."
Even with a 15-point deficit to overcome entering the final quarter, Ainge was confident Tennessee would find a way – or make a way – to steal the game.
"We didn't have to do anything crazy," he said. "We just had to make the plays we're supposed to make."