How’s this for an ending?
Josh Bone, Quinn Cannington and Kenny Hall casually parade to the stripe and swish free throws.
Instead of being on the edge of its seat, the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 21,003 is already on the edge of the parking lot.
Dangerous Devan Downey has retired in submission to the South Carolina bench and holstered his guns for another battle.
The student section raises the chant “Just like football, just like football.’’
Finally, Saturday evening, an opportunity for Tennessee basketball to exhale. And smile.
When Scotty Hopson made that basket to beat Florida six days earlier, it was a joyous occasion, a SportsCenter moment. But given a choice, I’ll take the ending I saw Saturday.
Tennessee dominated South Carolina 79-53. When’s the last time Tennessee dominated anyone?
To be fair, domination should not be the goal in the SEC grind. With rare exceptions the competition is too fierce. You take your one-point wins and go on to the next one.
That said, in Tennessee’s case the next one — and then the next one after that — oh, boy. Fasten your seatbelt.
During the next 16 days, the Vols face the season’s most daunting stretch of basketball. Four of the next five games are on the road, all against SEC East opponents.
It starts Tuesday at Vanderbilt, the Vols’ third game in six days. Up next, on Saturday, is Rupp Arena. You may have heard, Kentucky has improved a bit since last year.
After a Feb. 17 pit stop to do laundry and hit this team’s favorite training table, Waffle House — and play Georgia — it’s back into the jungle, at South Carolina and then Florida.
Knowing that murderer’s row lurked on the horizon, I had been watching for post-Kansas signs that the Vols were up to it. And I had been watching mostly in vain.
Toughing out a road win at Alabama on Jan. 19 was a legit sign. Since then, nothing much.
For whatever reasons, the Vols more or less mailed it in at Georgia. Then, at home against Vanderbilt, they blinked at crunch time and let the Commodores get away with one.
Beating Florida 61-60 last Sunday was big. Still, Tennessee was fortunate. The Gators missed a bunch of shots they normally make, including the potential game-winner.
As for a 59-54 win at LSU on Thursday night, I didn’t race away from that one and make Sweet 16 hotel reservations. LSU is a dreadful team and on that night, the Vols weren’t much better.
For a while, Saturday actually looked like more of same. The Vols started out rushing up shots as if the bus was already warming up for the ride to the airport. At one point they were 1-for-8, then 3-for-16.
Maybe the least impressive 17-4 team in America, I remember thinking.
Then, something began to click. An extra pass here, a defensive stop there, and momentum slowly started to build.
With Wayne Chism leading the way, most everyone pitched in. South Carolina had no answers, not even the marvelous Downey.
Throughout the second half, Tennessee looked like a deserving 18-4, a contender rather than a pretender.
“We played a lot better,’’ confirmed coach Bruce Pearl.
“We talked a lot about that if we were going to continue to win, we were going to have to play better.’’
Continuing to win at the tough joints coming up on Tennessee’s itinerary is a lot to ask. But the team I saw play against South Carolina, at least you’re not afraid to ask.
The defense remained sound. After the early flurry of questionable shots, Tennessee settled down and played its best offense in a while.
Bobby Maze raised his point-guard consciousness. The Vols valued possessions (only six turnovers) and recognized that Chism was money in the bank.
They won the boards. For that matter, they won every column of the box score.
“You feel better about yourself,’’ said Pearl. “You feel you’ve put yourself in position to have a chance.’’
It’s a hard road ahead, but having a chance is a better position than the Vols were in before Saturday.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6276.