all VOL, y'all.

10 reasons for the Vols strong finish

vols strong finish

The Vols once again finished the regular season in impressive fashion under head coach Cuonzo Martin, rattling off eight wins in their last nine games to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. And, as is the case with any hot streak, there were some critical moments to this one that made it possible. As the Vols wait to see who they’ll face in the SEC tourney, I thought I’d recap 10 that stood out to me.

10 key moments in the Vols strong finish

1. January 25: Cuonzo Martin contacts Gerald Boudreaux, the coordinator of SEC men’s basketball officials, with a simple plea. Let Jarnell be big. It’s Martin’s contention that a lot of fouls are called on Jarnell because refs assume that he must be guilty of something given how hard people bounce off of him. But in a lot of cases, all Jarnell’s really guilty of is being a badass.

It’s the second time that Marin’s made such a plea, and apparently the second time’s a charm because Stokes avoids early foul trouble for the rest of the year and, for the most part, plays lights-out. And there’s no way the Vols win eight of their last nine without the force he’s become, both in the paint and on the glass.

2. January 26 and January 29: Jarnell Stokes holds his ground against Alabama’s Trevor Lacey who puts up the potential game-winning shot. The refs swallow the whistle (in what most agree was a good no-call) and the Vols hold on for a one-point win which was huge. After all, UT had lost five of their last six in getting off to an 1-4 start in conference play.

In the very next game, Vanderbilt misses not one, but two point-blank looks from the paint that would have won the game for them. Instead, the Vols record their second consecutive conference win – both of them by a mere point.

It wasn’t all good news for UT, as Trae Golden went down against Vanderbilt and would miss the next two games, not to mention the fact that the Vols didn’t exactly look great in either contest. (Particularly against Vanderbilt.) They’d essentially won despite themselves.

Still, they proved to themselves that they could, indeed, win in the SEC. Plus, they needed a little luck to get the job done. Which was a good thing in my book. Because it left me with the sense that the ball was finally starting to bounce their way for a change.

3. February 10: Trae Golden returns to action for a road game against South Carolina after having missed two consecutive contests (both losses). But it’s not the same Trae Golden who had lost his starting job thanks to sluggish and inconsistent play. Instead, it’s a new and improved Golden  — one who looks crisp, confident and aggressive in scoring 16 points in just 27 minutes. And not a moment too soon for his reemergence, as by this point, the Vols have next-to-zero room for error. This game is the first of the final nine and, at least in my book, the official start of the Vols’ strong finish.

4. February 13: The Vols enjoy a convincing road victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores. Perhaps more importantly, Trae Golden returns to the starting lineup, the same lineup that Cuonzo Martin will use for the rest of the season. It’s a luxury of stability which the coach hasn’t enjoyed all year. It’s also evidence of a team which had finally found its identity, something they’ve sorely lacked since official word came that they’d be without Jeronne Maymon for the entire year.

But was it too late?

5. February 12: You caught me. I’m going backwards in time by a day, but I still believe this is the proper chronological order. Because February 12 is when Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending ACL injury. And once the dust had settled after the South Carolina game (which was played the following day), the Vols found themselves winners of four out of six, including just their first and second road victories of the year. As such, they were suddenly brimming with confidence.

And knowing that archrival Kentucky would take the Tommy Bowl floor without their best player didn’t exactly do anything to hurt that confidence. If anything, it only bolstered it.

6. February 16: Even so, no one could have predicted the performance that was to come, one that resulted in Tennessee’s largest ever victory of the Wildcats — a 30-point smack down, 88-58. On that day, the Vols prove that they’re not only a team to be reckoned with, but also one with a legitimate shot at earning a berth into the NCAA tourney.

7. February 23: Despite going just 8 of 22 from the field against Texas A&M, Jordan McRae drills the most important shot he’d take all night — a critical three to tie the game with just 9 seconds left in the first of what would eventually be four overtimes.

Yes, Golden was huge, too, with a career-high 32, but without McRae’s three, the Vols leave College Station with an L and Golden only goes for 19 as 13 of his points came in the next three OTs. As it is, the Vols win an instant classic, 93-85 in what is the longest game in school history.

McRae has obviously been the Vols’ leading scorer for the entire year, having really come alive during the second half of the season, but on the road against the Aggies, Jordan also proves just how clutch he can be.

8. February 26: In the Florida game, McRae once again pulls the offensive load for the Vols. He’s the only UT player to score in double figures, finishing with a game high 27 points on 9-of-20 shooting from the floor. He scores 17 of the Vols’ 35 first-half points. With the victory, the Vols have a six-game-winning streak as well as tournament hopes that are still alive.

Without McRae? Let’s not even go there.

9. March 6: The Vols face a must-win game after shitting the bucket against Georgia. Sure. It was against Auburn, who, you know, sucks. But it was also on the road, not to mention the fact it fell on Senior Night. And the Tigers desperately wanted to send Frankie Sullivan out on a winning note.

For much of the contest, it looks like they might do just that as the Vols let an early nine-point lead slip away and find themselves down by three at the half. They’d rally but never could quite clear the Tigers. Tennessee trails with under ten minutes to play when Skylar McBee drains a three that puts UT up for good and starts a 14-2 run that allows the Vol faithful to breath a little easier.

Tennessee survives Senior Night, but could they survive Senior Day in Knoxville when a physical and talented Mizzou team would come calling?

10. March 9: I personally thought the answer to that question was no once the Vols found themselves trailing 42-50 with under 10 minutes to play. But UT would go on a little run and cut the lead to three thanks to a pair of Josh Richardson free throws to keep hope alive.

Mizzou’s Keion Bell answers with a free throw of his own which extends the Tiger lead to four and sets the table for a final push that would be the cherry on top of the Vols’ strong finish.

Jordan got it started with a three that cuts the Missouri lead to 52-53. A half minute later, McRae puts back a Stokes miss to give the Vols the lead for good, 54-53. A free throw by Richardson, a trey from Golden and a pair of foul shots from McRae cap a huge 11-0 run that puts the Vols comfortably in front.

They hang on for a 64-62 win in front of a capacity crowd.

Now the Vols (19-11, 11-7) await the winner of the SEC opening round game between 12th-seeded South Carolina (14-17, 4-14) and 13th-seeded Mississippi State (9-21, 4-14).

Given the similarities between this team and last year’s, and given that last year’s earned one of the coveted top four seeds into the SEC tourney versus this year’s five, one gets the sense that the Vols’ work is far from over.

What do you think?

photo: @Vol_Photos

facebook comments: