TAMPA, Fla. – Tennessee has put together four teams that went on to reach the SEC Tournament finals since its last title in 1979, however, all of fallen short.
This trend was bucked in the No. 9 Vols 65-50 win over Texas A&M, giving Tennessee its fifth conference championship in school history.
The Vols entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed earning them a spot in the quarterfinals. There, they met Mississippi State who could not keep up with the Vols’ efficient offense as Tennessee went on to win 72-59.
This landed the Vols in a semifinal matchup with the third-seeded Kentucky Wildcats. Tennessee and Kentucky split their regular season series with both teams winning at home in dominant fashion. However, the rubber match ended with Rick Barnes improving to 10-7 against Kentucky as he took down the Wildcats 69-62.
“This time of year, every game is a playoff game,” said Barnes after the win over Kentucky. “Every game is a championship game. And you have to be ready. And you want to be playing your best basketball because we also know that it can go the other way real quick. You want to keep building that momentum, but you realize you’re going to be in a dog fight or fistfight or rock fight every single night. This is what you prepare for.”
The win over the Wildcats gave Tennessee their first SEC Tournament finals birth since its loss to Auburn in 2019. This time, they met a Texas A&M team that despite being just the No. 8 seed, took down Florida, top-seeded Auburn and Arkansas in their path to the championship game. However, the Vols iced the Aggies hot-streak, never trailing in their 15-point win.
Lifting Tennessee to victory in the championship game was the starting trio of Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James and Kennedy Chandler. The three combined for 47 points on a blistering hot 11-for-23 shooting from three. They also recorded a combined 14 assists.
Each was rewarded for their magnificent performances with All-Tournament Team honors. Chandler also went home as the Tournament MVP. Chandler earned this award with averages of 14.7 points, 5.0 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game in the Vols’ three wins.
“That wouldn’t have happened without these two guys (Vescovi and James) and my teammates to make this happen,” said Chandler on being named Tournament MVP. “I know I twisted my ankle, but I wanted to fight through, come back and play with my guys and win the SEC championship, and that’s what happened today.”
Along with Chandler, Vescovi and James, the rest of the team aided in a hot Tennessee start. The Vols jumped out to a 14-0 lead after under five minutes of play. Although the Aggies were able to scratch back to within six as a part of an 8-0 run in the first quarter, this early lead was too much to overcome.
Before Tennessee turns its attention to the NCAA Tournament, though, Barnes wants the team to enjoy their accomplishment.
“I want those guys to enjoy it,” said Barnes. “I have never been one to enjoy a lot until after the season is over with and you reflect on it because I’m always thinking next, next, next, but I’m really happy for these guys.”
The enjoyment started with celebrations after the game in Tampa and continued upon their arrival in Knoxville. Fans gathered on campus to greet the SEC Champions following their flight and bus ride back to the university.
— Ryan Sylvia (@RyanTSylvia) March 14, 2022
However, the NCAA Tournament is quickly approaching and Tennessee has another big hurdle in front of them. No Vols team has ever made it to the Final Four and just one (2010) has made it to the Elite Eight. Tennessee enters the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country and the No. 3 seed in the South Region. Their first game is against the No. 14 seed Longwood in Indianapolis at 2:45 p.m. on Thursday.
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at email@example.com