Thompson-Boling Arena was decked out in orange. The Tennessee players came complete with fancy, brand-spanking new orange-on-orange uniforms. There were orange shoes to match.
Then came the blues.
A "T-I-G-E-R-S TIGERS" filled an emptying Thompson-Boling as the clock dwindled down on an 85-80 Memphis victory on Friday night.
The 25th inception of the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry lived up to expectations with the down-but-never-out Vols cutting a 21-point, second-half deficit to as little as four, but the Tigers left with bragging rights.
Tears rolled down cheeks in the Vols' locker room afterward.
"It was Memphis," said Josh Richardson, who finished with a career-high 20 points, but will long remember the game for an entirely different reason. "They're right down the street. We don't like them. They don't like us. We fought so hard to
win that game that it hurts so bad to lose it."
Entering Friday, no team had scored 70 or shot better than 50 percent against UT coach Cuonzo Martin's vaunted defense this season. Memphis (10-3) poured in 85 on 31-for-56 shooting (56.4 percent).
Tennessee (8-4) saw its four-game winning streak come to a close, and its all-time series advantage over Memphis slip to 14-11.
"It was a tough game," Martin said. "My biggest concern is that there are a couple of guys, I thought they needed to play better. Not necessarily their production offensively, but playing hard and competing."
After building a 14-point halftime lead, the Tigers stretched their lead to 21 with 14 minutes, 4 seconds remaining.
Struggling mightily to score, UT searched for the offense to mount a comeback.
Jordan McRae, who finished with a game-high 26 points on 10-of-21 shooting, raised his hand. The junior guard nailed back-to-back 3-pointers cutting the margin to 15 with 11:20 left and shot life back into a slumbering Thompson-Boling packed with 19,535 fans, including new football coach Butch Jones. Standing ovations urged buckets on one side of the floor and stops on the other.
Both started to pile up.
Then McRae hit his fifth 3 of the night. The Memphis advantage was down 10 with under 10 to go.
The Tigers responded thanks to two 3-point daggers by junior guard Geron Johnson, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half.
"If I didn't let (Johnson) hit those two 3s, it's a whole different ballgame," said McRae, the defender on both plays.
Two straight Memphis goaltending violations on layups by Jarnell Stokes (11 points, nine rebounds) cut the Tigers' lead to 69-64 with 5:03 left.
It could have gotten even lower than that. Streaking down the floor with just over three minutes remaining, Richardson rose for an uncontested dunk. Memphis led 72-66.
"I missed the dunk," Richardson said. "It was a big play — a big momentum shift."
Richardson responded with a 3-pointer on the next trip following a three-point play by Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin, but the damage was done.
Joe Jackson led the Tigers with 20 points and seven assists, while Adonis Thomas finished with 18.
Stokes, the lone Memphis native on the UT roster, was whistled for two early fouls and sat for the final 9:52 of the first half. The Vols only trailed 18-13 when he exited.
Ten minutes later, the Tigers strolled into the halftime locker room with a 42-28 lead on 16-of-25 shooting.
"It was hard to watch," Stokes said. "We weren't getting in them like we normally do," Richardson said. "I don't really know what happened, but we can't come out like that. That's upsetting. Film on that ain't going to look to pretty."
Derek Reese (ankle sprain) and D'Montre Edwards (knee sprain) were both inactive for Tennessee. Martin said both injuries occurred during a Thursday practice.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn