KNOXVILLE — For the first 36 minutes Tennessee played well enough to notch its first win against a top-25 opponent under first-year coach Rick Barnes.
The last four minutes were another story, though.
Texas A&M outscored the Volunteers 18-4 in the final 4:12 as the 21st-ranked Aggies erased a 10-point deficit and stole a 92-88 win at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon.
"We talk about how good we can be and how good we were today, and we just said those last few minutes were brutal to our lead," freshman Admiral Schofield said after scoring 16 points and grabbing six rebounds for the Vols.
"We had them. We had them the whole game, and we just let it go in those last six minutes."
All but one of Tennessee's losses this season have come by eight points or less, but this one probably was the toughest for the Vols (8-7, 1-2 SEC), who led by as many as 13 points and were in front for more than 34 minutes.
For most of the second half it felt like Tennessee's lead was more precarious than the scoreboard showed, but the Vols had an answer every time the Aggies threatened.
Freshman Shembari Phillips came up with a loose ball on an offensive rebound and scored two of his career-best 15. Detrick Mostella banked in a straightaway 3 at the shot clock buzzer. Devon Baulkman drained a long jumper.
Kevin Punter Jr., the SEC's No. 2 scorer who had 17 of his 19 points in the second half, hit two free throws with 4:12 left to make it 84-74.
Then Texas A&M stormed back as Tennessee collapsed.
"I definitely think we've got to learn from this right here," said forward Armani Moore. "It's tough. If you look back over the game and say what we should have did, but at the end of the day we lost it.
"We've just got to figure out from here on out how can we start and finish games."
The Aggies (13-2, 3-0) scored 11 straight points, nearly all of them coming on or after runouts from a Tennessee miss or turnover, and Tyler Davis's layup with 2:12 left gave A&M its first lead (85-84) since the 18:24 mark of the first half.
Jalen Jones (27 points, seven rebounds) made a tough shot in the lane to give the Aggies the lead for good with 1:28 to go.
"It was tough because we came out with the same energy we came out (with) against Florida, but we just couldn't pull it out in the end," Schofield said. "Second half, we've just got to learn how to play well for the last 20 minutes. We work hard in practice on sustaining our energy and things like that.
"We've got to understand how to really win when it comes down to it, not turning the ball over and taking care of the ball and trying to get good shots."
The Vols had one final chance after Punter hit a 3 and Alex Caruso split a pair of free throws with 24.2 seconds remaining, but Punter's shot on a tough drive rolled off the rim and Mostella's go-ahead 3 rimmed out after an offensive rebound.
Danuel House (23 points) iced the game with two free throws with 5.9 seconds left.
"With all that, and the way we can sit here and pick it apart, we had a chance," Barnes said. "We just didn't take care of the ball. I've told you guys before, if you get a lead, your offense has to protect it for you, and it didn't do that tonight."
Tennessee committed a season-high 18 turnovers, which Barnes said was the "single biggest difference in the game."
The previous season high was 16 in the two-point loss at Georgia Tech. Texas A&M scored 21 points off those miscues.
"It was tough," Phillips said. "They were a good team. I really thought we could have pulled this off, but down the stretch we've got to be tough and take care of the ball and make good plays."
Though the Vols hit a dozen 3s — their second-highest total this season — Texas A&M shot 63 percent and scored 28 points in the paint and 13 fast-break points in the second half.
Tennessee made two of its final 11 shots with three turnovers in the game's final seven minutes, while Texas A&M made its last six shots.
Tennessee looked tentative against the Aggies' zone defense, but Barnes said his team simply didn't execute rather than tightening up in crunch time.
"Like Coach always says, we've got to make winning plays when it's winning time," Schofield said. "It's that seven- or eight-minute time period in the game where it's winning time. That's the time we've got to really buckle down and execute.
"A&M just outplayed us in the end. That's just what it was."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.