KNOXVILLE — Just when it seems that Tennessee has got its men's basketball season back on track, the Volunteers find a way to stumble and fall flat on their faces.
This time a second-half collapse turned into a crippling loss and the end of a four-game winning streak.
Texas A&M outplayed Tennessee in the second half after the hosts built a 14-point halftime lead, and Antwan Space hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 4.4 seconds left to give the Aggies a stunning 57-56 win at Thompson-Boling Arena in the Vols' SEC home opener.
"We got comfortable," guard Antonio Barton said of Tennessee's collapse. "We just thought the team was going to lay down and let us beat them. But a team like that, it wasn't going to happen. They kept their control, stayed within their offense and they played their game, and they came out with the win.
"This is very surprising," he continued. "I've never lost on a game-winning shot like that before, so it was surprising. It was surprising that we went into halftime up and allowed them to come back. That's not Tennessee basketball."
In the final half-minute, Jordan McRae was whistled for an offensive foul for hooking a defender trying to break free of a double-team and Jeronne Maymon clanked two free throws to set up Space's game-winning shot.
The Florida State transfer was 2-of-16 on 3s this season, but his high-arching winner silenced the energetic arena.
"It's very upsetting," Maymon said of missing the free throws.
"It was a dead silence in the locker room, but you can't just put it all on that free throw," said Barton, the Memphis transfer. "We had breakdowns, defensive breakdowns, all through the second half, so it was just those little things adding up to that."
In truth, Tennessee (10-5, 1-1) should have put away a team playing its first game outside its home state all season much earlier.
The Vols stifled the Aggies (11-4, 1-1) in the first half, holding the visitors to 24 percent shooting and building a comfortable lead while McRae, their leading scorer, and big man Jarnell Stokes watched most of the half from the bench with two fouls.
"I didn't see that second half coming for our guys," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "The way we played in the first half, especially with Jordan and Jarnell on the bench, I thought our guys did a good job. Armani [Moore], D'Montre [Edwards], A.J. [Davis] and Derek [Reese] came in and gave us good minutes."
In the second half, though, A&M was the aggressor, as Jamal Jones poured in 20 of his game-high 23 points after halftime while Tennessee's offense went into a funk.
The Vols, who played their best basketball of the season during their win streak, shot just 8-of-20 in the second half with nine turnovers, while the Aggies were 14-of-26 (53.8 percent). Stokes and McRae combined for just 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
"I think what we didn't get is interior scoring from our bigs in the post," Martin said. "I thought Jeronne did an exceptional job with 35 minutes of playing, but I don't think we got the back-to-the-basket, low-post scoring to open things up on the perimeter. I think they can go hand-in-hand, making perimeter shots and scoring around the rim."
Barton admitted the Vols were frustrated by the officiating in the second half, when there were a handful of illegal screens and other ticky-tack calls whistled on both teams.
"We've just got to keep playing," Barton said. "I know I can speak for myself and my teammates: On the offensive and defensive end, we were playing the refs. We were playing not to commit an offensive foul, or foul the ball on defense. We can't play like that. We've got to continue to play our game. We've got to just adjust to the referees.
"A lot of guys were getting mad, and not more so at each other but how the game was being called and the way it was drifting off and how we lost the lead."
Despite the frustration at the officials and themselves, the Vols still led 50-43 with 5:15 left in the game and 54-48 with 2:20 on the clock, and Barton's free throws with 36.9 seconds left put Tennessee up four.
"That's probably the worst thing about taking this 'L,'" Maymon said. "We had plenty of opportunities to keep them at arm's distance, even though they were making shots.
"When stuff like that happens, it's frustrating."
Now Tennessee must pick itself back up after a deflating defeat.
"This is a game you can learn a lot from, but you can't sulk and be mad," Barton said. "It's early in the conference. It's just the second game, and we've got a lot of games ahead of us. All we can do is just come, watch film, learn from it and get better and get prepared for Auburn."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
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 ...