ATLANTA—At the end, even Tobias Harris wore down.
The Tennessee freshman forward’s 3-pointer fell short.
Overcome with frustration, he needlessly fouled Florida’s Alex Tyus.
Seeking to calm Harris’s emotions, junior guard Scotty Hopson gently patted his teammate on the back of his head, as if to say, “It’s OK, big fellow. You did all you could.”
This is how it ended Friday night for the Volunteers against Florida in the SEC tournament quarterfinals. The Big Orange ran out of juice. The Gators hit nearly everything they threw at the rim in the final half, bagging 82.4 percent of their shots to prevail 85-74.
Now UT and coach Bruce Pearl can do nothing but wait on Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show. Hope ... and wait.
“I think we can be a dangerous team in the NCAA tournament,” Pearl said. “We just weren’t good enough today to beat the best team in our league.”
They were almost good enough twice earlier, losing to the Gators in overtime at home in January and losing by one point at Gainesville after missing a crucial late free throw.
And after a remarkable comeback that turned a 10-point deficit into a 34-29 halftime lead in the final frantic minutes of the opening half, it looked as if the Vols might finally get over the hump against the Gators, who won the SEC regular-season championship with a 13-3 league mark.
Especially if Harris could come close to matching the 18 points he’d totaled in the opening half.
“We got the lead we wanted,” sighed senior center Brian Williams, his eye still swollen from the previous night’s collision with Arkansas. “We just didn’t take advantage of it.”
Indeed, seemingly fatigued, Harris scored just seven points after intermission. Hopson finished with seven turnovers, more than half his team’s total of 13. The Vols hit just 21 percent of their 3-pointers and ultimately shot 12 fewer free throws.
Pearl even ripped off his charcoal gray suit coat, earning a costly technical in the process.
“A bad technical, a very bad technical,” Pearl said of the call that turned a two-point deficit into a five-point hole. “I really hurt my team.”
There are those would say Pearl hurt his team the entire season with his NCAA troubles. But for today we’ll stick with Williams’ assessment that not taking advantage of opportunities was the No. 1 theme of this UT season.
It first surfaced against Oakland inside Thompson-Boling in December. Up 16 points at one point in the opening half, looking every bit as good as the No. 7 national ranking they’d earned earlier that week, the Vols somehow lost 89-82.
That defeat soon led to another odd loss at Charlotte, followed quickly by a home loss to Southern Cal, then a post-Christmas home defeat against the College of Charleston.
In the end, the Vols lost eight home games, clearly the biggest reason they now stand 19-14, the first of Pearl’s six teams to fail to win as many as 20 games.
And in Friday’s second half, a huge win to be won, Tennessee once more played its Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde role to perfection.
Said Hopson, who had four first-half points and 15 in the second half: “We didn’t slide our feet, so we kept sending them to the foul line.”
Added Harris: “We settled too much on offense.”
The good news for emotionally drained Volniacs who must once more come to grips with the fact that Tennessee earned its last SEC tournament title in 1979 is that all of this is almost over. The Vols’ next loss will be their last, regardless of whether it happens in the first round of the NCAA tourney or the championship game, assuming they don’t cut down the nets in Houston on April 4.
But until then, words from Pearl are worth repeating.
“We gave good effort,” he said. “But there are too many weaknesses. Too much inconsistency.”
This game. Every game. All season. A consistently inconsistent team now down to one final chance to change.
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 ...