No. 20 Tennessee lost a heart breaker to No. 7 North Carolina 78-73 on Sunday afternoon in front of a sold-out Thompson-Boling Arena crowd. The Vols led for 37 minutes, but let their lead slip away in the final minutes of play as the Tar Heels pulled off the come from behind win.
The loss was a tough one to swallow as Tennessee looked like the better basketball team for the majority of the game, but there’s still a lot to look forward to going forward.
Here’s what we learned about the Vols in their loss to the defending national champs.
Tennessee is a good team, but they’re not great.
The Vols are 7-2 in year three under Rick Barnes, with the pair of losses being to the previous two national champions in Villanova and North Carolina. It’s a positive that Tennessee has not lost to an inferior opponent to this point in the season, but the Vols should be 9-0 right now.
Tennessee was up by 15 on then-ranked No. 5 Villanova early in the second half, but the lead disappeared quickly as the Wildcats blitzed the Vols coming out of halftime.
The same happened on Sunday, as the Vols led North Carolina by as many as nine while maintaining a lead for 37:10 of the contest. Tennessee led the Tar Heels 70-67 with 1:09 remaining, but the lead slipped away due to unforced turnovers and mental mistakes.
This season has proven that Barnes’ squad can close out games against the good teams – as we’ve been them do against No. 16 Purdue, NC State and Georgia Tech – but against the elite teams, they’re incapable of doing so just yet. This is the difference between being a really good basketball team, and a great basketball team.
Great teams find a way to finish out close games and don’t make mental mistakes in the closing moments of big games. Against Villanova and North Carolina, Tennessee committed far too many turnovers and had too many mental mistakes.
The good news though is that the mistakes Tennessee continues to make late in games is something that can be fixed and learned from. For the first time in quite some time, Tennessee didn’t lose to an elite team because of a talent gap and that’s something fans should be excited about.
Tennessee is rebounding at a decent clip, but they must get better.
Through nine games, the Vols are averaging 13.6 offensive rebounds per game, which leads the SEC. On the flip side, Tennessee is averaging just 24.2 defensive rebounds per game, ranking second-to-last in the conference, just ahead of LSU.
This has to change, as one of the reasons North Carolina was able to pull off the win was due to the amount of second-chance points they scored on offensive rebounds.
Against the Tar Heels, Turner led the Vols in rebounding with nine while Tennessee’s prominent big men – Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander, Admiral Schofield and John Fulkerson – had just four rebounds apiece. Barnes was none too pleased about it following the game.
“A guard led us,” Barnes said about his team’s ability to rebound against North Carolina following the loss. “Our front line has to do that. They have to be the ones that do that.”
Tennessee is 4-0 this season when outrebounding opponents, but they’re 3-2 when they’re outrebounded.
Thompson-Boling Arena is one of the best home environments in the country.
The atmosphere in Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday afternoon was absolutely phenomenal. It was the best the arena has seen in years.
Thanks to a sellout crowd of 21,678 – the first of sellout of the Barnes era – Tennessee had a distinct home court advantage against North Carolina.
“One thing I’ve learned is Tennessee loves basketball,” Barnes said. “And the fans deserve to have a good basketball team.”
Not only was the crowd a sellout for the first time since 2015, but the fans also successfully checkered the arena for the first time since 2006.
“Yesterday was the best, most electric home court environment I’ve ever experienced anywhere I’ve been,” Vols assistant coach Rob Lanier took to Twitter to say on Monday. “Experienced many great crowds, but when you inject the element of passion into the equation it becomes special.”
Even North Carolina’s legendary head coach Roy Williams took note of the awesome atmosphere that was on display as his Tar Heels visited Thompson-Boling Arena for the very first time.
“This is a pretty doggone good place,” Williams said following the game. “When I was a kid, I had strong feelings for Tennessee. It was right across the mountains from Asheville. And today I got to do one of the things I’ve always wanted to do, which was just, you know, I walked over there at halftime and patted the floor at Pat Summitt’s name. That was really important to me. Pat was a great friend, and I even brought my daughter over here for Pat Summitt’s camp when I coached at Kansas.”
“And Rick Barnes is a great friend, too. This is a good place.”
Edited by Seth Raborn
Feature image courtesy of UT Sports