NASHVILLE — With a chance to fold Saturday afternoon, Tennessee never flinched.
After a nearly five-minute stretch without a field goal, in which a 63-60 Kentucky lead built to eight points in their Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal, the third-seeded Volunteers proved to be the sort of tough team that they'd been advertised to be all season.
Tennessee trailed 71-64 at the final media timeout with 2:58 remaining, with the second-seeded Wildcats' Keldon Johnson heading to the free-throw line to complete a three-point play after the timeout, which he did.
On the Vols' next possession, Grant Williams drew a fourth foul on P.J. Washington 13 seconds later. He hit a pair of free throws, and the Vols broke out a press and forced a travel by Kentucky guard Tyler Herro. Williams then scored on a basket inside and drew a fifth foul on Reid Travis, ending a 4-minute, 46-second stretch without a field goal. The three-point play cut the Kentucky lead to three.
The Wildcats responded with a Washington jumper that was countered by an Admiral Schofield 3-pointer from the right wing. Then there was a forced turnover by the Vols' Lamonte Turner, knocking the ball out of Ashton Hagans' hands and diving for it, with Johnson eventually corralling the ball but stepping out of bounds to give Tennessee possession.
Bone then found Williams for a 3 in the right corner, and then after Washington made a tip-in of his own miss, Williams grabbed a Schofield 3-point miss and called timeout. On the ensuing possession, Schofield drove the lane before finding Turner at the top of the key.
Nothing but net.
The Vols then forced a pair of missed shots by Washington, and Bone knocked down four free throws to seal a win that seemed unlikely given the circumstances.
"Honestly, it's just our toughness," Schofield said. "We've been in many games like this, especially this time of the year. Like Coach (Rick Barnes) said before the game, players make plays. We've got a lot of good basketball players on our team, a lot of tough basketball players."
Their reward? An opportunity to face Auburn, which defeated the Vols 84-80 last weekend to deny Tennessee a share of the SEC regular-season title and has won two straight against Tennessee. What separates Tennessee from its first league tournament title since 1979 is a win against former Vols coach Bruce Pearl.
In the March 9 meeting, the Vols shot 33 2-pointers and 28 3-pointers in the four-point loss, a deviation from the game plan.
The goal is to make sure that doesn't happen again.
"The fact is, they're a very difficult team to defend," Barnes said of Pearl's Tigers. "They drive the ball really, really hard. We know that. We know they're going to drive, pass, pass. They're a very unselfish basketball team.
"We had a tough game with them down there where they beat us. We'll have to get ready. Another quick turnaround for us. But it's a team, much more perimeter-oriented team compared to a team like Kentucky that's trying to take it to you inside."
The Vols already have atoned for one loss, with Saturday's win against the Wildcats their second in three meetings this season. They'll have another chance against the Tigers.
But if the game is close late, they'll know they're capable of finishing.
And not flinching.