ATHENS, Ga. — The thing about pivotal moments in a basketball season is you can’t really identify them for certain until it’s time to reflect after the season is over.
We might have seen one Saturday.
With 12 minutes on the clock, Jordan McRae rose up over the Georgia defense and buried a 3-point shot.
Tennessee’s rally from an 11-deficit was complete. The Vols led 41-40.
The sizeable contingent of UT fans in Stegeman Coliseum unleashed a pent-up roar.
Pause the videotape. In hindsight, we might look back and say that was the high-water mark of Tennessee’s 2012-13 season.
It took Georgia a mere 22 seconds to get a dunk that wiped off the Vols’ only lead of the second half. Then the Bulldogs went on to finish off a 78-68 victory.
For those 21 seconds following McRae’s bucket, it was OK to believe the Vols were going to arise from a sluggish performance — just as they had seven days earlier at Texas A&M — and nail down another road win.
For those 21 seconds, the charge toward the NCAA tournament bracket seemed back on course. A six-game winning streak would surely grow to seven. The hottest team in the SEC would leave Athens still hot.
Instead, the streak ends at six, framed by losses to Georgia.
Tennessee’s hopes of playing its way into the NCAA tournament didn’t officially end as well, but they took a shot on the jaw.
What’s left to polish up the resume for a team that’s 17-11, 9-7 SEC? Not much. A visit to lowly Auburn on Wednesday, followed by the regular-season finale against Missouri in Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday.
Then it’s off to Nashville, where the only certain path to NCAA bracket is to win the SEC tournament. Historically speaking (and every other way) that’s a long shot.
It’s never over until it’s over. But getting into the bracket by any means becomes a longer shot after losing to Georgia.
The momentous upset of Florida on Tuesday had vaulted Tennessee into a legitimate March Madness contender. That scenario, however, was contingent on avoiding any 11th-hour missteps.
Saturday was a misstep. To be fair, perhaps a misstep was due.
“They’re human,’’ said coach Cuonzo Martin of his team.
To err, of course, is human.
“It’s just frustrating,’’ said McRae, “to watch our team just drop one like this.
“I don’t know about ‘first team out,’ and ‘bubble,’ I don’t pay attention to all that. We’ve still got a chance to do whatever.’’
McRae might not be a bracketologist but he knows his team shot itself in the sneakers Saturday.
His brilliant 35-point day went for naught because too many of his teammates experienced various malfunctions.
After a nearly invisible first half, Jarnell Stokes got in gear to finish with 10 rebounds and eight points. Skylar McBee’s gyroscope was out of kilter. He made only one of eight shots.
But above all, Saturday reinforced how utterly dependent the Vols are on point guard Trae Golden.
Golden missed the 68-62 loss to Georgia in Knoxville on Feb. 6 due to a strained hamstring. He returned and played his best basketball of the season during the win streak.
Saturday, the reigning SEC player of the week missed his first nine shots. His only bucket came with 16 seconds to play.
“If,’’ said Martin, “you don’t have Trae, Jordan and Jarnell productive offensively then it can be tough for you.’’
One out of three won’t get you past Georgia.
And not getting past Georgia might have run Tennessee’s NCAA tournament train off the tracks.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.