Through the first four innings of Sunday afternoon's Southeastern Conference baseball championship game, Tennessee was on pace for its biggest tournament title in program history.
Then Arkansas became Arkansas.
The nation's top-ranked Razorbacks scored three runs in the fifth to erase a 1-0 deficit and added three more in the eighth to pull away for a 7-2 triumph before a passionate crowd of 10,176 at Hoover Met in Hoover, Alabama. The SEC tournament championship was the first for Arkansas since joining the league during the 1991-92 school year, and it denied the Volunteers their first conference tourney crown in which both divisions were involved.
Tennessee's three previous SEC tourney titles from 1993-95 came when the league had separate tournaments for its East and West members.
"I think it will take a bus ride for our guys to soak up the whole deal," Tennessee coach Tony Vitello said afterward on a Zoom call. "Somewhere around the good city of Chattanooga, they'll maybe start laughing and talking about some of the things that they enjoyed here. The bitterness of this loss won't go away, but these guys have shown that they seem to get motivation from stuff like this."
Arkansas (46-10) and Tennessee (45-16) have now finished 1-2 in the SEC's regular season and in Hoover, and the Razorbacks and Vols entered Sunday's showdown projected by D1 Baseball as the top two seeds for the upcoming NCAA tournament. The NCAA field of 64 will be announced at noon Monday on ESPN2.
The 16 four-team NCAA regionals will be held June 4-7, with the Vols set to start out in Knoxville.
"There was a clear-cut winner today, so kudos to Arkansas," Vitello said. "Our program, along with 63 others, needs to start getting ready for next weekend."
Said Vols third baseman Jake Rucker: "I think the two best teams in the country just played."
Tennessee pitcher Will Heflin, who started Wednesday's tournament opener against Alabama, made his 15th start of the season and received an early lead when Rucker's two-out double down the right-field line was followed by Drew Gilbert's RBI single to right. The Vols loaded the bases in the second but came away empty when Max Ferguson's line drive to center was snagged for the third out by Christian Franklin.
Arkansas forged ahead in the top of the fifth with RBIs from Jalen Battles, Zack Gregory and Matt Goodheart, and that would be all for Heflin, who entered the fifth having allowed one hit and had a "60-ish" pitch count, according to Vitello. Battles homered to left in the seventh to make it 4-1, and then the Razorbacks brought in SEC pitcher of the year Kevin Kopps in the seventh to close.
Pete Derkay greeted Kopps with a home run to right that pulled the Vols within 4-2, but the first homer allowed by Kopps this month was the only damage he sustained. The Razorbacks improved to 35-0 this season during games in which they've led by at least three runs.
Former Cleveland High School standout Camden Sewell, who allowed two hits in six scoreless innings during Tennessee's 4-0 semifinal win over Florida on Saturday, was named to the SEC all-tournament team. The Vols had four selections, the most of any team, with Sewell joined by catcher Connor Pavolony, first baseman Luc Lipcius and Ferguson, the second baseman.
"Camden Sewell was like Billy Chapel yesterday," Vitello said, referencing Kevin Costner's character in "For Love of the Game."