published Friday, March 11th, 2011

Williams saves Vols’ year again

ATLANTA — It seemed like needless cake icing at the time. With nearly 13 minutes left to play Thursday night in Tennessee’s eventual 74-68 Southeastern Conference tournament win over Arkansas, UT center Brian Williams hit his first 3-pointer of the season.

With one second to go on the shot clock. From 25 feet out, though Williams insisted, “It was about a foot in front of half court. It was definitely a 34-footer.”

Whatever it was, it went in. Quite sweetly, actually. A cotton candy ball gently floating through the goal.

And when it did the Vols led 56-42, a lead that UT guard Cameron Tatum would swiftly extend to 16 points (58-42) 30 seconds later.

At that moment you could have sworn you saw Arkansas fans passing around one of their famous plastic hog hats to take up a collection to buy out embattled coach John Pelphrey.

At that moment, this game was surely over. Especially when the Vols still led by 16 (68-52) with 7:06 to go.

“We were about to make a statement,” Williams said later. “Then we got lazy.”

A lot of college basketball teams are trying to make statements this week, trying to convince the NCAA tournament Selection Committee that they deserve one of the 68 special invitations to Midnight Madness.

The Volunteers once were thought to need no such help, what with their top-rated strength of schedule and their marquee not-so-neutral-court wins over Pittsburgh and Villanova.

But then they lost eight home games, some of those when UT coach Bruce Pearl was serving his SEC-mandated eight-game league suspension for lying to the NCAA.

Then both All-America candidate Scotty Hopson and Williams missed games due to injury. Finally, point guard Melvin Goins — long the roughest, toughest Vol — caught a stomach bug this week.

“He was fighting it on both ends,” Pearl said late Thursday.

So maybe the Vols got lazy or maybe they got bored or maybe they just got tired, but Arkansas suddenly came storming back and Williams went to the floor for what appeared to be a shot to the eye that would prevent his return.

“That wasn’t a poke, that was a flagrant foul,” said Williams, his right eye slightly swollen. “I got punched in my eye by Mike Tyson. I could feel my eyeball push against my brain.”

Whatever happened, Williams went to the bench with 3:49 to go, seemingly done for the night.

Down seven at that moment, the Razorbacks eventually completed a stunning 16-0 run in a span of four minutes and 58 seconds to tie the score at 68. Miraculously, Williams returned.

“I thought I was done,” he said. “But when we got the ball back with a minute to go, I said I could play.”

Pearl didn’t earn his reputation for being one of the best situational coaches in the game for no reason. He huddled the Vols together and told them to get the ball on the left block to Tobias Harris, who would then look for the puffy-eyed Williams to cut to the basket on the right side.

Just as Pearl figured they would, the Razorbacks swarmed Harris, who finished with a team-high 20 points. At just the right moment, the freshman delivered his only assist of the night to a cutting Williams, who scored to put UT ahead for good, 70-68.

“It worked just like Coach said it would,” Harris said after the Vols improved to 19-13. “It won us the game.”

Williams already had won the Vols one game in the Peach State back in January, scoring the winning basket in a 59-57 victory at Georgia as time expired. Replays later seemed to show that Williams was over Georgia’s Chris Barnes’ back on the play.

Nevertheless, the 6-foot-11, 275-pound Williams appeared to have rung up the signature moment of his four years at UT against the Bulldogs, a win that many believe saved them from a collapse.

But then came Thursday and that outrageous 3-pointer followed by that game-changing layup, two shots to send the Vols on to tonight’s quarterfinal game against SEC regular-season champ Florida.

“Ain’t nothing ever going to be bigger than that Georgia moment,” Williams said with a grin. “But I guess this could be more important. Without this one, we were probably going to the NIT instead of the NCAA.”

And for a team that once rose to No. 7 in the polls, wouldn’t that have been a Mike Tyson punch to the gut.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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