A patched-together team of Tennessee Vols pulled off arguably the biggest victory in Thompson-Boling Arena history on Sunday evening.
Down to six scholarship players as a result of the dismissal of star forward Tyler Smith and the suspension of three others, 16th-ranked UT defeated No. 1-ranked Kansas 76-68 before a sold-out crowd of 21,936.
“It was about the effort, the courage and the teamwork,’’ said Vols coach Bruce Pearl, 2-2 against No. 1-ranked teams in his 4½-year tenure in Knoxville. “It’s pretty amazing what chemistry can do, when guys put their minds to something, and they know their backs are up against the wall.’’
It was the first time Tennessee played host to a No. 1-ranked team in the 23-year history of Thompson-Boling Arena and the shocking victory wasn’t secured until the final moments.
Kansas reeled off four straight points to pull to within 71-68 with 1:10 remaining.
The Vols worked the ball around on their ensuing possession before freshman walk-on Skylar McBee found himself handling the hot potato with time running down on the shot clock and Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor trapping him in the corner.
“I heard the noise rise in the crowd, and I looked at the shot clock and saw there was three seconds on it,’’ McBee said. “I pump-faked it, and (Taylor) came up in the air, so I kinda slipped under him and got the shot off.’’
The crowd erupted as the ball swished through the basket with 34 seconds left, dashing the Jayhawks’ comeback hopes.
“I think it was a prayer, and when it went in we were just so happy and everyone was smiling, and the crowd was happy,’’ Hopson said. “Skylar works so hard, and I knew when he hit that shot we would definitely win that game.’’
The Vols had created some doubts, missing three of four free-throw attempts that would have helped ice the game before Kansas went on its 4-0 run.
But, as Pearl pointed out, with senior starters Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince limited to a combined 33 minutes on account of foul trouble, three UT walk-ons played a combined 45 minutes, and they didn’t have a lot of experience closing games out.
“We missed free throws, and we turned the ball over,’’ Pearl said. “But it was the first time for a lot of them in a pressure-packed situation.’’
Neither the pressure nor the relative lack of experience affected UT’s ability to play defense, as the Jayhawks made only one of their final eight field-goal attempts and committed three turnovers over the final 4 ½ minutes.
“Kansas shooting 37 percent was significant and the difference in the game,’’ Pearl said, alluding to the Jayhawks’ season-low shooting percentage. “If Kansas shoots lights out, we got no chance, but they’re 7-for-27 shooting from three.’’
In the meantime, the Vols made 26 of 54 shots, their 48.1 percentage better than any of the Jayhawks’ previous opponents.
Woolridge hit three consecutive treys at one point early in the first half, enabling Tennessee to go on pull to a 19-19 tie at the 8:10 mark.
Kansas had led by eight points prior to Woolridge heating up.
“This is the greatest feeling in my whole life,’’ said Woolridge, who was 4-of-6 shooting and pulled down a team-high eight rebounds. “It’s a top-of-the-world feeling.’’
Maze, meanwhile, felt like he had to prove something to the world against the Jayhawks’ All-America guard, Sherron Collins.
“People have said Tennessee doesn’t have good point guard play,’’ Maze said. “But we’ve had some of our best practices of the year and the coaches had a great plan.’’
Collins led Kansas with 22 points, but he was just 7-of-22 shooting and committed four turnovers to go with his four assists.
Kansas had 16 turnovers to eight for UT.
All of which left Jayhawks coach Bill Self praising Tennessee and hoping his team can take UT’s cue.
“When you talk about all the stuff they have been through, I do not think Tennessee was a team until this past week,” Self said. “I do not think Kansas is a team yet.”
Maze had eight assists and just two turnovers, and chipped in on the boards with seven rebounds.
Chism and freshman Kenny Hall shared the task of defending Kansas’ 6-foot-11 post Cole Adrich, who grabbed 18 rebounds but scored just seven points.
“My whole mission was just to stop him,’’ Hall said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything but keeping my body on him and denying him the ball.
“This is what basketball is all about; everyone did what they were supposed to do.’’