UT Vols rally falls shorts against Arkansas in SEC tournament

UT Vols rally falls shorts against Arkansas in SEC tournament

March 14th, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Arkansas forward Moses Kingsley (33) loses the ball against Tennessee guard Robert Hubbs III (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, March 13, 2015, in Nashville.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Derek Reese sat along one wall of the Tennessee locker room inside Bridgestone Arena on Friday night with the blood still seeping slightly from three small cuts on his forehead.

The junior forward sported it with pride, the same sense that infiltrated the room after what likely was the final game of the season.

That game essentially summed up the entire season for the Volunteers, the undermanned team that often proved to a tough one to finish off.

After falling behind 13-0 in the game's opening minutes and trailing by 20 points early in the second half, the 10th-seeded Vols cut their deficit to second-seeded Arkansas to four points with 3:37 left before bowing out of the Southeastern Conference tournament with an 80-72 quarterfinal loss.

"We're not holding our heads down, because we still fought," Reese said. "We don't want to be in positions like that, but we still fought. We still came together.

"I love this team, and I'm going to miss playing with them."

It seems unlikely there will be another game to play for Reese and for Josh Richardson, the likable All-SEC senior who again led his team with a 22-point, 10-rebound performance.

At 16-16, Tennessee probably won't get an invitation to the National Invitation Tournament, which typically chooses from the best 32 teams that don't make the NCAA tournament and hands automatic bids to conference champions who lose in their league tournaments.

Another option is the College Basketball Invitational, but it's more of a pay-your-way tournament. Only one SEC team -- Texas A&M last season -- has played in the CBI, which typically features a field heavy on mid-majors with a few power-conference teams sprinkled into it. Texas, Pittsburgh, Purdue and Oregon have been recent participants.

"If we're fortunate enough to get an NIT invitation, certainly we would welcome that and hopefully play," first-year coach Donnie Tyndall said.

"I don't know how all that'll play out, but if that was an invitation we were given, we would certainly accept that."

The Vols could accept Friday night's loss with a sense of pride even after it looked like they would get run out of Nashville after Arkansas (26-7) made a scorching start to the game.

The NCAA tournament-bound Razorbacks jumped out to leads of 13-0 and 18-3, never let the Vols closer than seven points and led 45-25 at halftime after shooting nearly 52 percent.

"It happened really, really fast," Richardson said. "I just don't think we were playing like we knew how to. I think we were kind of coming out soft. They didn't, and they came out and hit us in the mouth."

Bobby Portis, recently anointed the SEC player of the year, backed up that award by totaling 18 points and six rebounds in the first half, and the sophomore finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds.

"We started the game on our heels," Tyndall said. "To their credit, they were very aggressive and forced some turnovers. We dug the hole for ourselves. Like my team, like our team has done the entire season, there was no quit. We continued to fight and scrap."

Tennessee trailed 55-35 when it began to chip away. The rally, which would have been more impressive than the Vols outscoring Vanderbilt 20-2 to erase a 12-point deficit in the final seven minutes the night before, began with a 13-2 run that cut the deficit to nine.

"That's how we were coached all year," guard Robert Hubbs said. "We're never going to quit. We're going to play to the end, and that's what we did tonight. It just wasn't enough."

Arkansas pushed its lead back to 14 at 65-51, but the Vols came back one more time with a 14-4 run capped by nine straight points from Kevin Punter.

It was 69-65 with 3:37 to go, but Tennessee got no closer as Arkansas finished the game at the free-throw line, where it scored its final 13 points after failing to score from the field for the final seven minutes and 18 seconds of a game that included 57 fouls and 73 free throws.

"It's no such thing as a proud loss," Vols forward Armani Moore said. "I'm definitely proud of my teammates. I feel like everybody put out their heart on the line, and we competed. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out the way we wanted it to."

Richardson fouled out with 34.8 seconds left and received a nice ovation from the Tennessee fan contingent.

"My brain was going really fast," he said. "Just knowing that it was over was kind of weird. I just got to thinking about this year and how proud I was of us, and last year, how proud I was of that (Sweet 16) team.

"I think both years we've gotten the most out of ourselves."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.