The top ranked Tennessee Volunteers entered their contest against Texas A&M on Saturday night with history on the line. A victory would extend the Vols’ current winning streak to sixteen in a row, a new school record. It would also secure yet another week atop the college basketball polls across the country. A win against the Aggies would also mean that this Tennessee team would run their record to 20-1, the fastest team to twenty wins in Tennessee history. Finally, in the most direct sense, a victory in College Station would keep the Vols undefeated in SEC play with another conference win on the road to their credit. There was certainly plenty on the line for the Vols as they entered Reed Arena Saturday night, and they played like it out of the gates.
Tennessee opened the game white-hot from the field, jumping out to a 28-9 lead over the Aggies on the strength of an astounding 12-14 shooting. In the typical fashion of this team, the damage wasn’t just coming from a single player. Grant Williams did what he does best, taking the ball low on the block and getting to the rack. Jordan Bone hit from distance as well as on a drive that showcased his blazing speed. Admiral continued to look like The Admiral, continuing the momentum he started in the second half of the South Carolina game. Starting for the Vols again, Lamonte Turner rewarded the faith that Rick Barnes showed in him, tossing in a three of his own. From the tip, the entire Volunteer roster looked absolutely dialed in on the offensive end of the floor. They were running effective set plays, finding open looks, and winning individual match ups. Tennessee consistently created good looks for their multitude of scorers and the good looks kept falling. In short, the Vols came out and dropped an absolute barrage on top of the Aggies’ heads, looking every bit the number one team in the nation, and looking ready to blow A&M out on their home floor.
Except Texas A&M didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to fold. A&M weathered the storm that Tennessee threw at them off the opening tip, gathered themselves, and shot themselves back into the contest. The Aggies became the latest team to have a season best performance shooting at Tennessee’s expense. While the Volunteer defense against the three-point shot does need to improve, this was yet another contest where Tennessee was playing solid defense overall and their opponent just had a hot night shooting. Though he would never admit it out loud, in the midst of running defensive drills while he hounds his players’ effort closing out a three-point shot or getting off a screen, Rick Barnes must wonder how many more times Volunteer opponents are going to have out of body experiences shooting the basketball. Thanks to their impressive performance on the offensive side, particularly securing offensive rebounds and turning them into second chance points, the Aggies only trailed 46-39.
The second half saw both teams continue to shoot exceptionally well. Twice the Aggies pulled within two points of Tennessee. Each time the Vols looked to start a run to pull away from A&M, the Aggies would answer with a strong shot and one of their twelve threes as a team. The Aggies shot 43.9% for the game and 44.4% from three. They also kept Tennessee off the foul line, with the Vols only taking four shots from the charity stripe all night, all taken and made by Grant Williams. Texas A&M was also far more careful with the basketball than normal, committing just ten turnovers overall. Looking at the numbers, knowing the game was in College Station, and seeing that the Aggies simply would not go away, this is beginning to read like a textbook scenario for an upset on the nation’s top ranked team. Indeed, it may read that way, and for many teams it could have been a chance to stumble, but these Vols found yet another way to win.
In recent weeks, Tennessee has had to find ways to win games when their opponents were having fantastic games. Against Alabama, Tennessee reverted to the roles that made them so good in the first place. In a thriller at Vanderbilt, Grant Williams happened, turning in a historic performance. The Vols had to overcome a slow start against West Virginia and fight their way back to secure the win against the Mountaineers. On their trip to Colombia, SC, the Vols had to contain a surging Silva out of the gates for the Gamecocks, ultimately pulling away for a win without the services of Jordan Bowden. Saturday night in College Station, in a shootout worthy of the Old West, the Vols found a new way to win by doing their best Wyatt Earp impression.
Texas A&M had a great night shooting the basketball, but Tennessee had an amazing night from the floor. The Vols shot an astounding 64.5% from the floor, at one point late in the second half, they had hit on 80% of their attempts from two. It wasn’t as if A&M could focus on a single shooter either, as the Vols had five players scoring double figures. Grant Williams lead the way for Tennessee, posting a double-double with twenty-two points and ten rebounds. However, the star of the show for the Vols might have been the fastest gun on the hardwood in Jordan Bone. Bone was perfect from the floor, going seven for seven, four of four from three, to total eighteen points to go with ten assists in his own double-double. For all the attention that Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield get, Jordan Bone is putting together an All-American caliber campaign this year. He is a consistent scorer, a brilliant passer, and a good defender. Bone can drive the lane, hit from three, make a pin-point pass, and always seems to make the right decision with the basketball. Bone has the rare distinction of being a point guard that has earned the trust of Rick Barnes, as Barnes is content to let Bone run the show on the floor. Frankly, it is hard to argue with the results. It was behind these impressive individual efforts and the outstanding team effort that the Vols pulled away from A&M, seeming to answer each big shot by the Aggies with two of their own down the stretch.
Tennessee is enjoying the longest reign is school history atop the polls. They also completed all the historic milestones they had in their sites going into Aggieland. The Vols know that to stay at the top of the polls, they must improve defensively, particularly against the three-point shot. They also know that, though no road trip in the SEC is easy, the end of the conference schedule will see the degree of difficulty increase. These Vols can appreciate the history that they have made, but ultimately, the only history this team is concerned with involves hanging banners of the SEC and NCAA variety. If these Vols want to be the first men’s team to ever hoist a National Championship Banner, they will have to continue finding ways to win. Against the Aggies, the Vols showed that they had the ability to win games in yet another way, one more tool needed for hanging Banners earned in March.