UT's Atlanta jinx continues

The Georgia Dome isn't the only place that is problematic for Tennessee. Put Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the list.

With the SEC Tournament moved to Georgia Tech's gym from the Georgia Dome because of weather damage, it was thought the Vols might overcome the Atlanta jinx.

Not quite.

Tennessee hasn't had much luck in the domed facility in basketball or football since 1998. But even a change of venue didn't help the Vols.

Despite holding 9-point lead in the second half, the Vols couldn't hold on against Arkansas, falling when 7-foot-1 center Steven Hill hit his only basket of the night, a floating 5-footer over Wayne Chism with 5.3 seconds left.

Chris Lofton, whose clutch 3-pointer beat South Carolina the previous day, misfired at the buzzer, sending the Hogs to Sunday's SEC Championship game.

This season, Tennessee had been a team about making history. It won the SEC outright for the first time in 41 years. He reached the No. 1 ranking for the first time ever. It won a record 29 games. It was determined to bring home its first SEC Tournament title since 1991.

No dice.

``We're terribly disappointed,'' Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. ``We came here to win the tournament. We haven't won it since Bert Bertlekamp was handling the ball.''

That would be 1979. At least the Vols played in the semifinals for the first time since 1991.

Tennessee was optimistic it could play on Sunday after having defeated Arkansas by 22 points in Knoxville on Feb. 13.

But this was a different Arkansas (22-10) team, one that played with more poise and determination.

Bertelkamp, UT's color analyst on the Vols Network, said Arkansas has the best talent in the SEC and it's not close.

The Hogs certainly made a case against Tennessee. And a couple of players who did little against UT in the first matchup came up high.

Charles Thomas, who had six points and five rebounds in Knoxville, had 24 points and 10 rebounds and was nearly unstoppable. Stefan Welsh, who had five points in Knoxville, struck for 12 on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range, mostly in the first half.

That's 36 points off the bench in a one-point win.

Tennessee countered with Tyler Smith's season high 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting and Lofton's 25 points. But it wasn't enough as UT fell to 4-3 when trailing at halftime.

Pearl was bothered by the defeat for more reasons that not reaching the tournament finals. He saw, for the second night, defensive deficiencies that will make it tough for UT to make a long run in the NCAA Tournament.

Arkansas shot 55 percent and pounded the ball inside with effectiveness. That wasn't the game plan in Knoxville, or, if it was, it wasn't executed.

``We were supposed to front the post,'' Tyler Smith said. ``We didn't do what coach had us designed to do. That's why they scored so many buckets on us inside.''

Pearl said the difference in UT's 22-point win and one-point loss was that the Vols outplayed the Hogs' big men in Knoxville.

``That's the bottom line,'' Pearl said. ``We let the ball get in there. I wrote that down in my notes, `If you let it in, you're coming out of the game,' and we let it in all night long.''

In the previous SEC tourney game, the Vols did a poor job stopping South Carolina's guard penetration, prompting Pearl to say he knew his shooters had fresh legs late because they didn't play much defense. He didn't feel much better about his defense against the Hogs.

``Defensively, we obviously didn't make enough plays,'' Pearl said.

Pearl is also concerned about the board work – or lack thereof.

``You can't win championships getting beat on the boards like we did,'' Pearl said of the 34-22 difference. (UT won that battle 38-36 in Knoxville).

And for a team that is 29-4 and hopeful of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Pearl had another issue.

``Our point guards were getting terribly outplayed in the first half,'' Pearl said. ``I challenged them at halftime. I thought Ramar responded.''

So there you have it.

If Tennessee is to advance to the Final Four, it must play better defense, it must rebound better and it must get better play from its point guards.

But that didn't stop Pearl from campaigning for a program-first No. 1 seed. He said UT had the nation's best non-conference road win (at Memphis), had probably the third-best non-conference road win (at Xavier), handed Mississippi State its only home SEC loss, and secured the No. 1 spot in the RPI.

``I think we're a No. 1 seed,'' Pearl said.

He'll find out Sunday evening.

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