Picture the scene: the score is 22-20 in favor of the visiting Volunteers. In a span of two minutes, the Jackets are called for four fouls in rapid succession and turn the ball over twice. It is now 29-20. In a game ultimately decided by seven points, this was definitively a turning point. The game, which eventually saw Grant Williams and Kyle Alexander of Tennessee foul out, was stitched together from disparate parts, broken up by a staggering 49 total fouls called.
The Jackets, who shot a respectable 38.9% from the field, could not keep pace with Tennessee for most of the night. The visitors were powered by 24 points from Lamonte Turner and 11 from Williams. Though a little under their season average of 45.9% shooting, the Volunteers were efficient from the floor and from beyond the three point arc. Combined with a solid 85.2% free throw percentage, the Volunteers needed to be out-rebounded, out-hustled, and out-defended if they were to fall tonight. Despite another late comeback attempt by the Jackets, the Volunteers simply kept making shots and found their way to the line, taking advantage by making almost all of their shots from the charity stripe.
The game started out with an emphatic dunk, followed quickly by a steal, from A.D. Gueye. His progress from last year has been refreshing, to say the least. Tech and Tennessee traded baskets for most of the first half. Neither team had led by more than three when Moses Wright knotted the score at 17 with a three-pointer halfway through the first, the last tie game of the night.
The crowd at the Thrillerdome made itself known a few minutes later during the aforementioned dry spell. Along the baseline, a foul was called on Curtis Haywood II, despite not touching Chris Darrington as he leapt out of bounds. The crowd quickly rose from its usual yelling to pure vitriol. A minute later, off the ball, Jose Alvarado took a shove from Jordan Boone and was called for another mysterious foul. On the next possession, Ben Lammers was ruled out of bounds, a questionable, at best, call. The vaunted home court advantage was fully raucous, despite McCamish Pavilion being only 75% full, and they were not pleased at all.
Tennessee kept its streak going, building up their biggest lead of the half when Williams dunked, giving Volunteers a 35-26 lead with 43 seconds to play. However, Haywood was fouled attempting a buzzer-beating three, and made all three free throws to cut the margin to six going into the locker room.
In the second half, Tennessee made a pair of free throws to pad their lead when Lammers, who finished the game with a team-leading 17 points, hit his first of two three pointers on the night. With the deep shot, he is a full-fledged menace from anywhere on the floor, and this had been one of his primary points of emphasis this offseason. Lammers also had the 200th block of his career earlier in the game.
After Lammers’ second three pointer and a Haywood layup cut Tennessee’s lead to one, the Volunteers answered with a three. Lammers then took a drive to the basket, seemingly making it a two point game, with a foul call to boot. However, a tough offensive foul negated the basket, and Coach Josh Pastner needed to be physically restrained by his assistant coaches to keep from yelling the referees out of the building. Jeers rained down from the stands. Unfazed, Tennessee immediately capitalized, tacking another three points to their lead.
The margin oscillated between seven and four points for a while as Tech and Tennessee traded free throws and jumpers until the score was 56-52 with six minutes left in the half. The Jackets managed three stops in a row, one of Pastner’s favorite goals, but were unable to capitalize, thanks to turnovers and yet more fouls, as the game closed in on the final media timeout.
Tech’s defense continued to hold, despite another questionable out-of-bounds call, and the Jackets got as close as 58-57 before the Volunteers pulled away to end the game. Six free throws in a row made the game 64-57 with less than two minutes to play, when Tech started attempting shots beyond the arc, something they appeared very reticent to do much of the game. None fell until Tennessee’s lead was too big to overcome, at 11 points, with 40 seconds to play. Alvarado caught fire, much like the Grambling State game Friday night, making a trio of three pointers inside of a minute to play, however, the Jackets, fouling at this point, could not come any closer than six points and ultimately fell 77-70, the first time since February 2nd, 2016 they have scored 70 points or more and lost.
The game was a melange of fouls, free throws, and frustration, as Tech came close several times in the second half, but could never break through and seize the lead, despite cutting it to one point multiple times. In the end, Tennessee made 17 of 19 from the line in the last three minutes alone, putting the game out of reach.
It seems a cop-out to blame a loss on the referees or bad luck, but they certainly factored into the outcome. That is simply how sports work. There were several outright dumbfounding calls scattered throughout the game, turning the ball over repeatedly and giving the visitors plenty of free throw attempts, which certainly did not help Tech. Though it was an improvement to see Lammers looking healthier than he has of late, a second straight loss and 4-3 start are undeniably disappointing. Though Pastner contends that the Jackets still are a young, rebuilding team, they have impressed as recently as Tuesday. Tonight, for a variety of reasons in this bizarre, stutter-step game, they did not.