COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s not supposed to look this easy.
That thought kept rattling around my head during the final minutes of top-ranked Tennessee’s 92-70 win at South Carolina on Tuesday night at Colonial Life Arena.
Quick recap: Tennessee went into Tuesday’s game without one of its best two-way players, and the Vols didn’t know that player — junior guard Jordan Bowden — wasn’t going to be able to play through a sore knee until a few minutes before the opening tip. Senior Kyle Alexander, the Vols’ starting big man and defensive anchor, played just three minutes in the first half because of foul trouble and then fouled out after playing just six more minutes in the second half. Junior guard Lamonte Turner picked up three first-half fouls. South Carolina star Chris Silva poured in 22 first-half points and looked just as hot to start the second half.
A sold-out arena implored the Gamecocks to hang around in the first half, and they did, and those fans got rewarded when the home team went on a spurt to get within 60-58 of the Vols with 13:02 left.
Tennessee junior guard Lamonte Turner (Photo: Jeff Blake, USA TODAY Sports)
Tennessee willed its way to wins over Alabama, Vanderbilt and West Virginia despite putting in three of its worst performances of the season, and Tuesday looked for all the world like a potential loss waiting to happen. And that was before Bowden tweaked his knee in pregame shoot-around, Alexander and Turner got in foul trouble and Silva went bonkers.
Nearly 18,000 people rose to their feet, sensing the opportunity for a precious and rare win over the nation’s top-ranked team.
It didn’t look good.
You, the Tennessee fan, might be feeling the urge in hindsight to suggest these Vols always had it in the bag. You might even be able to suggest that with a straight face. But you can’t look yourself in the mirror and suggest you knew these guys had that game under control. You know you can’t. Because it felt like a loss was coming to this team at some point in the near future, and Tuesday felt like that day. Let’s be honest. That’s exactly what it looked like.
But this team.
Oh, this team.
Within seemingly a few snaps of a finger, back-to-back 3-pointers by Turner and senior wing Admiral Schofield — who at the time couldn’t have been colder if he’d walked into a meat locker — capped an 11-3 run that pushed the Vols’ lead back to double digits.
Frank Martin called timeout to try regrouping his rattled Gamecocks, and that worked out well in the short term. Sophomore big man Felipe Haase hit a jumper to give South Carolina a much needed response, and the garnet-clad citizens of Colonial Life again brought life back to the building.
Again, though, Schofield had a response. The 6-foot-6 wing bullied his way into the paint for a 3-point play that again pushed the lead to 10 points.
The Gamecocks were done.
Tennessee junior forward Grant Williams (Photo: Jeff Blake, USA TODAY Sports)
It’s not supposed to look this easy, and I know it’s not this easy. But this Tennessee team makes it look so easy.
Even Martin’s most mediocre teams guard their yard, and these Gamecocks entered Tuesday’s game with a 5-1 record in league play. They’d already beaten Florida, Mississippi State and Auburn. They looked like a team starting to figure some things out, and in Silva they have a reliable rock capable of carrying them to a decent season. And Tennessee wasn’t at full strength. Not even close. And Tennessee seemed to start taking on water near the midway mark of that second half.
So, naturally, the Vols responded with their best 10 minutes of basketball in a few weeks.
There will be bumps in the road this season. Even most of John Calipari’s most ridiculously talented Kentucky teams wobbled a bit here and there in league play. That’s the nature of the thing. Conference play is a grind, and secrets largely don’t exist. The coaches and players know each other, and they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Their fans fill arenas, especially when they have chances to beat a team ranked at or near the top of the polls. This is hard. It really is. Even the best invariably run into walls.
But these Vols keep running through walls.
They’re bound to run into a wall at some point. But it’ll need to be a wall so strong that Mexico, the U.S., Canada and most of NATO paid for it.
It’s easy to keep wanting more and more and more. Success creates an unquenchable thirst for more success. It creates a Black Hole of expectations so vast that no success can fill. If these Vols don’t win an SEC championship or go to the Final Four, it’ll be a disappointing season by any reasonable measure. That’s the house these coaches and players have built, and they have to live in it. Fair is fair.
All I ask is this: Take brief moments here and there to sit back and appreciate what this program is doing right now, and the way in which it got here.
Tennessee sophomore forward Derrick Walker and senior wing Admiral Schofield (Photo: Jeff Blake, USA TODAY Sports)
This isn’t a suburban neighborhood that sprung up overnight, with rows of beautiful beige houses built on shaky foundations built to crumble. It’s not a store-bought pizza that looks good when it comes out of the oven but taste like cardboard covered in cheap sauce and cheese. We’ve watched Tennessee build this. We’ve watched these players take their lumps, learn from them and improve throughout their careers. We’ve watched them grow. For you, the fans, this has to feel as close as it gets to watching your own children.
I’m not at all opposed to the one-and-done scene in college basketball. Men like Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Roy Williams and Bill Self didn’t make the rules, and they shouldn’t be criticized as coaches for succeeding despite the lack of three- and four-year players. That cheapens nothing about their accomplishments. They’ve played by the same rules as everyone else, and they’ve won more. Simple as that. Tip your cap to ‘em.
But there’s something wonderfully unique about this Tennessee team — a blue-collar team that people in this blue-collar part of the country can appreciate without reservation. None of these players had a single offer from any of those blue-blood programs. None of them were top-100 prospects. Even now, none of them are surefire first-round NBA Draft picks. Everyone knows them. Their fans know them. Fans of their rivals know them. They’re old-school. They’re proof that sometimes the old-fashioned ways remain relevant, and they mix-in plenty of new-school flair to make them equally enjoyable for millennials and the like. Their “One Fly All Fly” pregame dunk routine has gone viral, with college teams across the country and even some NBA teams copying it.
And they’re all yours, Tennessee fans.
Teams like this one don’t come around often. Don’t risk waiting for the finish line — whenever that comes — before you stop to appreciate it.