TAMPA, Fla. — Tennessee’s SEC season boiled down to the final 11.1 seconds of Sunday’s conference title game.
The verdict: guilty.
“We’ve been consistently inconsistent,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We rushed, took a lot of bad shots and struggled terrificly on offense.’’
Mississippi State pulled out a 64-61 victory in the SEC tournament championship game before a crowd of 10,093 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Later, the Vols (21-12) were given a No. 9 seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament and will face No. 8 Oklahoma State (22-11) in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday (TV: WVLT, 12:25 p.m.).
The Bulldogs (23-12) became the fourth team — and second in a row (Georgia) — to win four games in four days at the SEC tournament and earn the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
UT, meanwhile, made its first appearance in the SEC tournament title game since 1991.
But the first tournament championship in 30 years eluded the Vols in the final, hectic 11.1 seconds.
UT junior J.P. Prince stepped to the free-throw line with the Vols trailing 62-60. He hit the first shot but missed the second. The teams scrambled for the ball before it went out off Mississippi State with 9.6 seconds left.
Tyler Smith, however, was called for a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds pass. Replays showed Smith and Pearl appeared to call timeout before the five seconds elapsed.
The Vols dug in, forcing a turnover on the following inbounds play by trapping Mississippi State guard Dee Bost on the baseline and forcing him to step out with 9.3 seconds remaining.
Smith got his next inbounds pass to Prince, but Prince’s pass back to Smith was tipped, and Smith was called for a foul on Phil Turner in a scramble for the ball.
“I swiped at the ball and got his jersey,’’ Smith said. “They called me for a hold.’’
The 6-foot-3 Turner, who played defense in Smith’s jersey all day, limited the Vols’ leading scorer to 12 points on 2-of-14 shooting, hit both free throws to give the Bulldogs a 64-61 lead.
UT called timeout to set up the final play. Smith inbounded to Prince, who passed back to Smith. Smith brought the ball up court and found Cameron Tatum open at the top of the key.
I thought it was a good shot at the time,’’ said Tatum, who wheeled and misfired. “I saw 5.5 (seconds) on the clock, and I knew it was ticking.
“If it went in, great. But if I missed, we might get another shot.’’
Tatum missed, Turner rebounded, and time ran out.
“It was crazy, real crazy,’’ Smith said, recounting the final seconds. “For us to win, we have to pass the ball and get the open shots.
“We rushed it today.’’
And the Bulldogs rushed the court with the unlikely victory.
The Vols limped to their locker room, disappointed with heads down.
“The (free throw) just rattled out,’’ said Prince, who scored 14 points and pulled down six rebounds. “I should have made it. This one is all on me, and I let us down.
“It’s 100 percent my fault.’’
Wayne Chism, the hero of the Vols win over Auburn on Saturday, said SEC tournament MVP Jarvis Varnado got the best of him.
“Me and Varnado have been going at it since we were little,’’ said Chism, who had 15 points and seven rebounds to Varnado’s 10 points, seven rebounds and six blocked shots. “He came out with a championship, and he played hard to win it.’’
Prince vowed the Vols would be back with passion in the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t care who we play — it don’t matter,’’ Prince said. “We’re gonna make this run.’’
Pearl said he continues to believe in the team.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t win this championship,’’ Pearl said. “But I’m proud of my basketball team.
“Look at how many times we’ve picked ourselves up off the deck and played beautiful basketball. We keep bouncing back.’’