COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Let’s start with a declaration: The Tennessee-Texas A&M basketball rivalry will be all downhill from here.
The Vols and Aggies, in their first meeting as SEC brethren, set the bar impossibly high to match Saturday at Reed Arena.
They played a regulation game, then played half of another one. After three hours — 60 minutes of clock time — the Vols emerged from a four-overtime marathon with a 93-85 Lone Star souvenir.
They didn’t stagger off the court, either. The victors were all smiles and laughter and slapping high-fives with a ring of chanting UT fans lining the exit portal.
A half hour later, after the singing and shouting died down in the locker room, sophomore Josh Richardson summed it all up:
“I feel fatigue and happiness, all in one big ball.’’
It was one big ballgame to be sure. UT’s first four-overtime game — ever. A five-game winning streak to ride into Tuesday’s game back home with Florida.
The box score should be framed and hung on coach Cuonzo Martin’s wall —with the minutes played highlighted.
Richardson played a career-high 43 minutes and he was a relative slacker. Jarnell Stokes played a career-high 53.
“I’m tired,’’ said Stokes, “but glad we won the game. That’s all that matters.’’
On and on it went. Stokes forced the first overtime when he made the first of two free throws to forge a 62-62 tie with 5.9 seconds left in regulation. By missing the second, he indirectly added 20 more minutes to everyone’s workday.
The Vols were hanging by a thread in the first overtime, down 68-64 with 20 seconds left. Baskets by Golden and McRae salvaged another five-minute window for redemption.
Golden delivered again in the second overtime. The Aggies made the game-extending basket in the third overtime.
Tennessee vs Texas A&M, Feb. 23, 2013
The fourth was all Tennessee, a bravura curtain call. Cue the celebration.
“I didn’t see any sign of fatigue and giving up,’’ said Martin. “It was a fun game to be a part of.
“Of course it’s easy to say that when you’re on the winning side.’’
Through it all, UT trainer Chad Newman urged the players to drink up at every break in the action to stay hydrated. Cramps can be a crippling enemy.
“They listened,’’ Newman said. “They drank. Nobody cramped up.’’
Newman did his job from tip-off to final buzzer. Nicodemus Christopher had done his over a period of weeks and months.
Christopher joined the staff as head strength and conditioning coach for
basketball last May.
Said Martin, “He actually said when he took the job, ‘this time of year we’ll be physically ready. You’ll see the results.’
“A year ago I wouldn’t have thought Trae Golden could be out there like that. We’d have to sub him in and out, in and out.
“So hats off to the guys for being locked in but also Nicodemus Christopher for getting those guys ready to roll.’’
They needed to roll to hang with Elston Turner. With his Knoxville-raised dad, Elston Sr., watching, the senior guard carried the Aggies with 38 points.
Turner, along with quick darters Fabyon Harris and J’Mychal Reese, tormented Tennessee’s defense with end-of-shot-clock penetration for baskets. It seemed for the longest time that would be UT’s downfall and the winning edge for the Aggies.
“I didn’t think we defended with a level of toughness and passion probably the first 35 minutes of the game,’’ Martin said.
But then the defensive momentum shifted. From getting almost no stops, Tennessee began to get one clutch stop after another. At one point, Turner was 11 of 14 from the field. Then he made only five of his last 19 shots. The Aggies shot a collective 29 percent in the overtimes.
“We accepted the challenge,’’ Martin said.
Because they had the stamina to accept the challenge. And it made all the difference in a game for the ages to launch a new SEC rivalry with a bang.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at strangemike44.