KNOXVILLE — Tennessee saved its best half of the basketball season for Saturday afternoon's home finale against Arkansas.
The No. 13 Volunteers would need every bit of it.
After building a 50-29 halftime lead on the strength of 9-of-12 shooting from 3-point range, the Vols held on to outlast the No. 14 Razorbacks 78-74 before another electric Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 21,678. Tennessee led by 24 points late in the first half and by 23 early in the second, but its advantage was just 77-74 with nine seconds remaining when JD Notae missed a potential tying shot.
Tennessee 5-foot-9 freshman Zakai Zeigler grabbed the rebound and would make the second of two free throws to account for the final tally.
"I would love to bottle what we did in the first half," Vols coach Rick Barnes said, "and I told our guys that we had to continue to take care of the ball, which we didn't. When we were playing well, I thought we were physical and doing what we needed to do. When they were making their push back, they became the more aggressive, physical team. At no point in time did I not think they were going to make a push back.
"We're going to have to learn from some of the mistakes that we made."
The Vols committed 10 of their 17 turnovers after intermission, when they were also outrebounded 24-14.
By hanging on, however, Tennessee concluded a 23-7 regular season with a 14-4 Southeastern Conference mark. The Vols will be the second seed at next week's league tournament in Tampa, Florida, an event they amazingly haven't won since 1979, and will open play Friday night.
Auburn (27-4, 15-3) won the SEC regular-season title outright with Saturday's 82-71 downing of South Carolina and will be the top seed, with the Tigers and Vols followed by Kentucky (25-6, 14-4) and Arkansas (24-7, 13-5). The top four seeds receive double byes into Friday's quarterfinals.
Tennessee wound up defeating Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky in Knoxville this season, with Saturday's triumph wrapping up a 16-0 home record and extending the program's home winning streak to 17 games.
"I can't thank our fans enough," Barnes said. "We just went over averaging 18,000 for the year, and it's awesome."
Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi scored 15 points apiece to pace the Vols, while Zeigler added 13 and Josiah-Jordan James 12. Chandler was 5-of-6 from 3-point range but badly missed three free throws.
"This is like the worst I've ever shot free throws," Chandler said. "I'm really a 90% free-throw shooter, honestly. It's mental. It's not like I can't shoot free throws. It's all in my head, so it's stuff I've got to work through, because I know that in March Madness and in the SEC tournament that those free throws will be important."
Said Barnes: "He's obviously capable of doing it, and it's a whole different shot from shooting 3s. He's going to have to figure out a routine to quiet himself down a little bit."
Saturday's outcome avenged a 58-48 loss in Fayetteville last month, when Razorbacks 6-10 sophomore forward Jaylin Williams frustrated the Vols by drawing four charges. Williams entered the rematch having drawn 48 this season, but he didn't get any charges Saturday and was called for three blocking fouls.
Notae scored a game-high 20 points for the visitors, while Chris Lykes and Stanley Umude each added 15.
Tennessee began this regular season by setting a school standard with 17 3-pointers in a rout of UT Martin. The Vols ended it by making 12 of 18 attempts from long range for their best clip (66.7%) of the season.
"I've said all year that when we take good shots and good rhythm shots that we're a good 3-point shooting team," Barnes said. "Are they all going to go in? No, but when we get looks and take the right ones and don't get anxious, then we can make 3s."
Before Saturday's contest, sixth-year senior forward John Fulkerson and senior walk-on forward Brock Jancek were honored. Fulkerson has played in an SEC-record 160 career games.
"I definitely got all of the tears out last year," Fulkerson said. "I actually enjoyed this and didn't get too emotional."
No time for decision
Saturday was the final home game for Fulkerson, but was it the home finale for Chandler as well?
One NBC projection released this weekend for the 2022 NBA draft had Chandler pegged as the 16th overall selection.
"I don't want to think about that right now," Chandler said. "I want to continue to get better every single day in practice and get ready for the SEC tournament next week and then get ready for March Madness. I want to continue to get wins, and I'll make the decision of whatever I want to do when the season is over.
"I want to win the SEC tournament and eventually make it to the Final Four. That's my mindset."
Bailey skips festivities
Fifth-year senior guard Victor Bailey did not go through senior day festivities and can return to the Vols or play elsewhere next season due to the extra year allowed by the NCAA due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
"We've discussed everything with him," Barnes said. "He'll have options, and we hope he'll always be a part of the program. One way or the other, we love him. His teammates love him.
"When you think about it, Josiah-Jordan James is technically only a sophomore, and we're in a day where there are options for players. He just chose today that he didn't want to do it."
Bailey averaged 10.9 points and made 12 starts last season, but he has started just four times this season and has averaged 2.9 points.