The first four words out of Rick Barnes’ mouth during his postgame press conference perfectly summed up Tennessee’s bitter loss to Georgia.
“J.J. Frazier was terrific.”
Despite being terrific in his own right, the heroics of Grant Williams were all for not, as Tennessee (14-11, 6-6 SEC) blew a double-digit lead and lost, 76-75, due in large part of the heroics of Georgia’s 5-foot-10 guard on Saturday afternoon in Thompson-Boling Arena.
The SEC affair between two teams fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives began as a back-and-forth battle, but quickly transformed into a mano e mano duel between Williams and Frazier. The latter led the Bulldogs (14-11, 5-6 SEC) in scoring with 29 points, while the former tied his career high with a game-high 30 points.
“We tried to trap him (Frazier),” head coach Rick Barnes’ said of Tennessee’s defensive approach on Georgia’s star guard. “We tried to go with Shembari (Phillips) on him to get length on him, but he kept getting in there (the paint) and went by our post players a couple times. I know he drove by Lew (Evans) twice…you got to give him credit.”
Williams was also unguardable and quickly became the Vols’ go-to option on offense after scoring the orange and white’s first four points. The freshman recorded 12 points during the opening 20 minutes despite limited playing time, which helped give Tennessee a narrow 36-34 edge at halftime.
Despite heading into halftime after controlling much of the first half, Barnes still felt the game’s turning point was his team’s inability to distance itself from a hungry Bulldogs team on the scoreboard, which gave Frazier a chance to work his magic.
“Even though we came out (in the second half) and built a lead up real quickly, he (Frazier) just went to work,” Barnes said. “… the fact is, (allowing a shooting percentage of) 51.8 percent won’t win a lot of games.”
Once the second half commenced, Williams kicked his game up a notch and did everything in his power to ensure a Volunteer victory. He scored 10 points in a swift five minutes, helping Tennessee build a 14-point lead. Highlights included a perfectly delivered pass to Kyle Alexander for an emphatic alley-oop, which Williams followed with a layup on the Vols’ next position to give Tennessee a 44-36 lead. Williams continued his individual onslaught with a jumper that catapulted the Vols’ lead to 53-39.
Seeing Williams hoist his team on his shoulders, Frazier followed suit, and unlike Williams, finished the job.
“(It’s) probably more bitter than sweet (scoring 30 points but coming up short),” Williams said. “The points didn’t really matter that much to me. I really wanted to win and not getting it really hurt.”
Frazier scored 17 of his 29 points after Georgia fell behind by 14 points and seemingly always gave the Bulldogs a basket when they needed it the most. With 4:09 remaining in the game, Frazier’s layup fell in high off the glass, giving Georgia its first lead since the 6:23 mark of the first half at 63-62. Williams wasted no time with a response, as he knocked down a pair of clutch free throws just seconds later to give Tennessee the lead once again.
But Frazier ended up having the last laugh. With the Vols trailing 73-71 in the game’s final minute, Frazier dribbled around Lew Evans, darted his way through a crowded lane and bruised his way to a cold-blooded 3-point play. Tennessee attempted a valiant comeback effort, but Lamonte Turner’s last-second 3-pointer fell one point short of forcing overtime.
Saturday’s loss marks the fifth time this season the Vols have lost a game in which they held a 13-point lead. Of the five losses, four have come in conference play.
Tennessee travels to Lexington next Tuesday, where they’ll have a date with Kentucky on Valentine’s Day. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Edited by Robert Hughes
Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics