KNOXVILLE — Texas A&M 57, Tennessee 56.
It remains the season’s most noticeable black mark for the Volunteers, and should they miss the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive year when the 68-team field is revealed three weeks from Sunday, it would be the biggest reason why.
This afternoon, though, Tennessee can cancel out what happened in Knoxville six weeks ago, when the Vols blew a 14-point halftime margin and a 56-52 lead in the final 37 seconds and lost to the Aggies on a top-of-the-key 3-point shot by Antwan Space.
“It was a terrible loss,” Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon said before Thursday’s practice at Pratt Pavilion. “We did a lot of things great, but down in the clutch we couldn’t close it out. They hit a couple of shots and we missed a couple of assignments. We’re looking to correct that this second time around.
“We were finally getting our footing, then we lose that one.”
The loss to a team well into the 100s of the all-important Ratings Percentage Index and the slip-up at Vanderbilt earlier this month have been the biggest disappointments of the season for Tennessee, which gets chances at redemption the next two Saturdays.
The Texas A&M loss was a sort of microcosm for the up-and-down Vols’ season.
After holding the Aggies to 25 percent shooting in the first half, Tennessee surrendered 39 points, allowed Jamal Jones to score 20 of his 23 points and gave up 14 points in the paint in the second half. Offensively, the Vols faltered with nine turnovers and eight made shots in the second half.
“It was just a breakdown on our part,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “The first half I thought we did a great job defensively and offensively. In the second half, it was just a tremendous amount of breakdowns, allowing guys to get in the lane, not protecting on the backside. We looked slow offensively and got stagnant.”
Following Antonio Barton’s two free throws with 37 seconds left, the Vols allowed Alex Caruso to get to the rim for an easy layup, Tennessee’s Jordan McRae was called for an offensive foul trying to break out of a trap and Maymon missed two free throws.
All of that set up the winning shot by Space, who was just 2-of-16 from 3-point range for the season before that game.
“It was very frustrating,” Barton said. “We let one slip. We came out in the first half very dominant, and we kind of let our foot off the [gas] in the second half and they made us pay for it.”
The Vols bounced back to beat Auburn in their next game after a couple of sluggish practices, and a couple of players said they needed that Sunday after the Aggies’ win to clear their minds from the upset.
“I just stayed in myself,” Barton said. “That was a heartbreaker, to come down and lose at the last minute like that, but we came in the next day, that Monday, and watched film. Coach, he didn’t really want us to go over the film, because he didn’t want us to relive it and stay in the past, but we watched it, and he just said after that we were leaving that game in the past.”
The past is now the present, and Tennessee hardly can afford to be swept by a team with one of the SEC’s lowest RPIs.
Just as the two losses to Georgia last season kept the Vols out of the NCAA tournament, two losses to the Aggies, picked to finish ninth in the SEC in the league’s preseason poll, likely would relegate them to the NIT this season.
Tennessee, which needed four overtimes and 75 combined points from McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Trae Golden to win in College Station last season, welcomes another shot at Texas A&M.
“That helps ease the pain,” Maymon said, “but we’ve got to go out there and make it happen.”
Barton said he and his team are “real motivated” to face the Aggies a second time.
“Yes, of course. It’s redemption,” he said. “We have to go in and take this one. They came here and took a game from us, so we’ve got to to go in there and take one from them.”
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...