Santiago Vescovi launched the basketball toward the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday. The Vols could finally exhale.
Tennessee basketball was the best version of itself against Arkansas on Saturday. It also was the worst version.
“We do have to get better,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said. “You guys saw that today. We showed that we can play great basketball.”
The Vols had a torrid start, turning a rowdy Thompson-Boling Arena crowd into a frenzied scene during the regular-season finale. Then they lost control in the second half, slipping twice and allowing a 24-point lead to tumble to two in the final minute.
But the Vols did what they’ve done all season: They won at home, topping Arkansas 78-74 to complete an unbeaten season in Knoxville. Tennessee clinched a second-place finish in the SEC and in the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament.
Kennedy Chandler and Vescovi had 15 points each for No. 13 Tennessee (23-7, 14-4 SEC).
JD Notae had 20 points for No. 15 Arkansas (24-7, 13-5). He missed a game-tying 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds to play, Arkansas’ final opportunity.
Tennessee was great when it was making 3-pointers
The Vols were 4-for-24 on 3-pointers in their 58-48 loss at Arkansas on Feb. 19.
Tennessee made five in the first 5:52 in this meeting and was 9-for-12 from 3-point range in the first half. The Vols finished with 12 3-pointers. Chandler led the way with a career-high five.
But the Vols couldn’t make a field goal late. Arkansas held UT without a field goal for the final 6:04. Tennessee scored its final seven points at the free-throw line.
The Vols had 10 second-half turnovers, which Arkansas turned into 15 points.
“We will have to get better and still have to grow up,” Barnes said. “When you have a lead, you can’t keep throwing those lifelines out there.”
Tennessee was torrid in the first half
Josiah-Jordan James hit a 3-pointer on Tennessee’s third possession, the third straight time the Vols scored to open the game and the first 3-pointer.
Tennessee had a scorching offensive start against the Razorbacks. UT hit its first three 3-pointers on its way to 9-for-12 3-point shooting in the half. Chandler was 4-for-4 in the first half from 3-point range.
The Vols took a 20-point lead on a Justin Powell layup at the 6:39 mark. Tennessee got to 48 points with a pair of James free throws after 17:50 of play, matching its mark from the loss in Fayetteville.
Arkansas fought back with rebounding
The Vols got the first points of the second half before Arkansas went on a 10-0 run to cut Tennessee’s lead to 13. The Razorbacks coming behind a big rebounding push.
The Razorbacks dominated Tennessee 24-14 on the glass in the second half. Arkansas had 12 offensive rebounds.
The Vols had been on a roll rebounding in the past four games, winning the rebounding battle and having at least 40 in each of their past four games.
Tennessee restored its lead to 19 with three 3-pointers, but Arkansas cut UT’s lead to three with 2:05 to play after another 10-0 run.
James held stabilized the Vols in the middle of the second half with key shots and important defensive plays.
“During that time we were struggling, he made some big, big plays for us,” James said.
Tennessee will play Friday in the SEC Tournament after earning a double-bye as one of the top four teams in the SEC.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism