A little more than a month ago, a day like Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena didn’t seem possible.
A little more than a month ago, Tennessee’s Vols told themselves they could fight back from a 3-6 SEC start, just as they did last year. But in their heart of hearts, it was sometimes hard to really believe it.
“For a while,’’ Jarnell Stokes said Saturday in reflection, “it started seeming like it wasn’t going to happen.’’
But it did happen. And it all led to a Saturday afternoon that was at once charged with joyful energy and fraught with tension.
How much was riding on the Senior Day finale, the Vols’ first-ever SEC game against Missouri?
Only everything, if you believe the NCAA tournament bracketologists.
Tennessee woke up Saturday knowing it needed a quality win over Mizzouri to preserve its precarious hold on the NCAA bubble.
By tipoff, bubble-mate Kentucky had rallied for a possible resume-saving win over Florida. Ole Miss had delivered at LSU.
As UT coach Cuonzo Martin told his team Friday, it was do or die.
The Vols did.
A come-from-behind 64-62 win ranks with the best on Martin’s watch, now two years old.
Getting from the depths of a 3-6 SEC start to set the stage for a must-win Saturday was one thing.
“Somehow, guys just manned up,’’ said Stokes.
But closing the deal in front of a packed house of 21,767 and an ESPN audience was a whole other thing — especially after Mizzou rolled out a 50-42 lead with 10 minutes left.
Missouri, to my eyes, was the most talented offensive team to visit Thompson-Boling this season. Sure enough, the Tigers hit eight of their first 11 shots.
An unexpected hero helped the Vols get engaged. Quinton Chievous scored all seven of his points and got four of his five rebounds in the first half. Ironically, his career game came against Mizzouri, where his dad, Derrick, was the all-time scoring leader.
“It was just another game for me,’’ said Chievous. “I wasn’t focused on that at all.’’
When UT needed more heroics in the second half, it was the usual suspects.
For the longest time, it seemed Jordan McRae wasn’t going to score. Then he ended up the leading scorer. Thirteen was Stokes’ lucky number, both points and rebounds.
Finally, Golden capped his personal comeback from a midseason slump with a killer 3-ball and a game-icing one-and-one.
The 3-pointer extended UT’s lead to 58-53 with 3:56 to left.
Golden glanced to the bench and assistant coach Tracy Webster, who had spent early-morning sessions in Pratt Pavilion, trying to prod Golden out of his malaise.
“He had a smirk on his face,’’ said Golden. “It was a great moment.’’
It was. And Tennessee’s fans deserve a shout out for help making it so.
They packed the place Saturday, just as they did against Kentucky and Florida. The sleeping giant Bruce Pearl awoke remains very much awake into the Martin era.
“Our crowd has been amazing all year,’’ said McCrae. Added Stokes, “They’re like our sixth man.’’
Missouri vs Tennessee, March 9, 2013
“Twenty-two thousand strong,’’ said Golden, “we didn’t want to not give them a victory.’’
They gave ‘em a victory that won’t be soon forgotten.
They gave ‘em a victory that didn’t seem possible a little over a month ago.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.