ATLANTA — Tennessee improved its chances of making a school-record sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance with a win in the first round of the SEC tournament on Thursday night.
The Vols (19-13) held on for a 74-68 victory over Arkansas (18-13) after the Razorbacks erased a 16-point Tennessee lead in the Georgia Dome.
“There are some games you have to win to get in (to the NCAA tournament), and that loss could have hurt us,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “I just know the more we win, the better chance we have to be seeded.’’
UT, the No. 5 seed from the SEC Eastern Division, had an RPI ranking of No. 35 entering the game. Various prognosticators had the Vols penciled in as an NCAA at-large team with anywhere from a No. 6 to a No. 10 seed prior to the win over West No. 4 seed Arkansas.
Tennessee can solidify its resume with a win over No. 12 Florida (24-6) in its second-round game tonight (TV: WVLT, 7:30p.m.).
The Vols played as though they were looking ahead to the Gators in the final minutes after a Steven Pearl basket gave UT a 68-52 lead with 7:02 remaining.
Arkansas caught fire down the stretch, going on a 16-0 tear to tie the game at 68-68 with 2:08 remaining on a pair of Rotnei Clarke (18 points) free throws.
“In the second half we got a big lead and relaxed, and that’s been the story for us this season,’’ said UT freshman Tobias Harris, who led the Vols with 20 points. “We know to advance we have to close out games.’’
Harris took matters into his own hands in the final minutes, dishing to Brian Williams for a basket inside that put UT back on top, 70-68, with 54.9 seconds left.
Harris stepped up again on the defensive end, hedging out on Arkansas’ Julysses Nobles enough to distract the Razorbacks’ ball-handler while Melvin Goins swooped in for a pivotal steal.
Goins dished to Harris on the fast break, and Harris drew a foul and hit the ensuing two free throws with 33.8 seconds remaining to make it a two-possession game at 72-68.
Goins sank two free throws with two seconds left for the final margin.
“The way Tobias prepares is what gives him the confidence to show that kind of poise and make those kind of plays,’’ Pearl said. “He’s the hardest working player in the country, and tonight he played like an All-American.”
The Vols will need more stepped-up play if they are to beat Florida.
The Gators, the No. 1 seed from the SEC Eastern Division and SEC regular-season champions, swept Tennessee in both regular-season meetings.
Florida beat UT in overtime on Jan. 11 in Knoxville 81-75 with Vols associate head coach Tony Jones filling in Pearl, who was serving an SEC-imposed eight-game suspension.
The Gators completed the sweep with a 61-60 victory in Gainesville on Feb. 12 with Pearl back on the side court.
But as UT proved Thursday, past meetings might not serve as an accurate predictor.
Arkansas beat the Vols 68-65 in both teams’ SEC season-opener in Fayetteville on Jan. 8.
Tennessee served notice in the first half Thursday that things might be different this time around.
The Vols held a 37-25 lead at the half on a strength of a 12-2 run over the final 4:20.
Harris scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half, and UT held a commanding 23-14 advantage on the boards, led by Williams’ six rebounds in his first eight minutes.
Arkansas opened the second half on a 7-2 run, cutting the Vols’ lead to 39-32, but UT answered with an 8-1 run to increase its lead to 47-33 on a pair of Josh Bone free throws at the 15:54 mark.
The Vols’ lead stayed in double figures until Clarke drained a 3-pointer with 4:15 left that brought the Razorbacks within 68-61.
“At least we showed we can win a close game when it gets to that point,’’ said Williams, who had nine points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes after missing the previous two games with a back injury. “But it never should have got to that point.’’
UT junior Scotty Hopson finished with an SEC-low eight points on 4-of-9 shooting and pulled down four rebounds.
“I think the toughest game to win is the first game of the tournament, and we’re past this one,” Hopson said. “We’re definitely looking forward to playing Florida.”