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Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes talks with Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden (23) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)
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Bowden-sparked Vols withstand Vanderbilt flurry

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KNOXVILLE — There was a moment in Tuesday night's Southeastern Conference basketball game between visiting Vanderbilt and Tennessee when the Thompson-Boling Arena scoreboard showed the 22nd-ranked host Volunteers ahead by 20 points in the final half.

Then there was that other moment, much later in the game, when the Commodores — though undersized and short-staffed due to a season-ending injury to shooter Matthew Fisher-Davis — were shockingly within two points. That was less than 80 seconds from the end.

Tennessee steadied itself well enough from that tense moment to win 67-62, improving to 14-5 overall and 5-3 in SEC play.

But the lesson of such seemingly unnecessary drama wasn't lost on Vols sophomore forward Grant Williams, who followed up his earlier 37-point outburst against Vanderbilt in Nashville with 18 points in this one.

some text Tennessee forward Grant Williams (2) is defended under the basket by Vanderbilt forward Clevon Brown (15) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)
some text Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner (1) is defended under the basket by Vanderbilt center Djery Baptiste (12) and Vanderbilt forward Clevon Brown, right, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Crystal LoGiudice)
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"That's the difference in a Top Five team and a Top 20 team," the Charlotte, N.C., native said afterward. "They have a killer instinct. We have it. We just have to become consistent with it."

If there is a single consistency in this weird and wacky SEC conference race, it is that there's no consistency from anyone except Florida and Auburn. Not in the standings. Not in a single game. Because UT-Vandy wasn't the only wild ride the league enjoyed Tuesday night.

Georgia led by 17 early against visiting Arkansas only to lose in double overtime, its second straight defeat from a lead of at least 14 points. Alabama went up nine at Ole Miss, then fell apart in the final half. Everyone's beating up everybody else, which just might mean the conference is the best league in the country from top to bottom.

It's why ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has eight SEC schools reaching the NCAA men's tournament come March.

It's why Purdue — which is projected by many to reach the Final Four, if not win the whole thing — lost to the Vols on a neutral court in November. And why Florida led Duke by double figures with five minutes to go before losing late. And why LSU beat Michigan.

It's also why Texas A&M, once ranked No. 5 nationally, is at the bottom of the SEC these days, a sad shadow of the team that buried Top 10 member West Virginia by 23 on a neutral court at the start of the season.

Finally, it may be why, the more you look at it, these Vols just might be the last team standing in the SEC standings come March.

Consider, for instance, junior guard LaMonte Turner, whose lone made 3-pointer of the night came with 1:03 to play and put UT on top 63-58, as close to a dagger as was delivered all night.

The triple was huge, of course, and it all but iced a game that would have been both deflating and disturbing had UT lost. And after scoring 25 at South Carolina on Saturday night, Turner might have been expected to make a shot to win the game.

But his offense — he scored only seven points Tuesday and missed six of his nine shots — is not what his teammates and his coach were gushing about after the win.

After watching Vandy's Riley LaChance almost single-handedly bring the Commodores back with a second-half flourish of 25 points, Turner reportedly told Rick Barnes in a late timeout, "No, I want LaChance."

Said teammate Jordan Bowden of that exchange: "He's really focused on defense."

Said Barnes: "The kid's trying to reinvent himself as a player. When you see him work that hard on the defensive end, you want something good to happen to him (the late 3-pointer) on the offensive end."

Bowden's a case of something good happening to a good kid who's been struggling of late. After scoring no points in the win over South Carolina and two points in the loss at Missouri last week, the Knoxville native led UT against the Commodores with 19 points, including five 3-pointers in seven attempts.

"I tell him all the time he's the best shooter in the country," said freshman Derrick Walker, no doubt knowing Bowden is hitting 56.5 percent of his triple tries for the season.

Said Bowden when asked about his two-game slump: "I just had to keep shooting and be aggressive."

That wouldn't be a bad recipe for success in this year's SEC, regardless of the team. But on a night when Tennessee almost let one slip away, the most important takeaway is that it won.

"We found a way to get it done," Barnes said.

Added Bowden, who was a part of too many games that got away from the Vols late a season ago: "Last year we weren't very good at close games. This year we never back down from the challenge. This year we're a lot tougher when we need to be."

And never before in the SEC has it been as important to be tough every game you play.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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