Tennessee was in firm control of this game.
They had weathered Oakland’s storm. Despite 20 first half points from Keith Benson (who finished with 26 points and 10 boards) and 70% shooting from the Grizzlies over the first 13 minutes of the game, Tennessee was able to open up a 50-39 lead at the half. That lead was pushed as big as 13 in the second half, which combined with Benson rolling an ankle (he missed about five minutes of game time and returned with a noticeable limp) gave the Vols firm control of the game.
It seems like the Vols believed this one was over.
Because down the stretch, it was all Oakland.
Sure, Oakland had their fair share of luck -- they banked in two jumpers from the foul line and had a seven foot center hit a 19-foot contested fadeaway to beat a shot clock buzzer -- and Tennessee had their fair share of dumb plays -- they took a number of ill-advised shots and committed at least three fouls 75 feet from the basket to put Oakland on the line -- but the difference down the stretch was effort.
It was Oakland that was getting all the loose balls. It was Oakland that was getting to the offensive glass. It was Oakland that was forcing Tennessee into tough shots.
And it was Oakland that earned an 89-82 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena against the No. 7 team in the country despite their first round pick becoming essentially a non-factor down the stretch.
Because the Grizzlies made the plays down the stretch.
Three in particular stand out to me. The first was after Oakland had taken their first lead of the second half. Melvin Goins missed a tough layup driving through traffic and Oakland pushed the ball in transition the other direction. Tennessee lost track of Benson, who was left wide open from 17 feet and knocked down the jumper.
After a Cam Tatum turnover at the other end, Oakland grabbed three offensive rebounds on one possession, the third of which bounced in between three Tennessee players and was gobbled up by Will Hudson, who had six offensive boards to go with 17 points on the night. He immediately went up and scored a layup, making it 81-76.
Two possessions later, after Tennessee had trimmed the lead to 82-79, the Vols needed to get a stop with under a minute left. After Oakland worked the ball around, it ended up in Larry Wright’s hands. Wright, who finished with 19 points, 6 assists, and 5 boards, hit Goins with a pump fake to create space and buried a three with 35 seconds left.
Dagger! Onions! Whatever you want to call it.
Oakland had all but sealed the win.
The Vols were primed for an upset in this game. Oakland came into this one at 5-5, but their last two times out they very nearly knocked off two of the Big Ten’s best in Illinois and Michigan State. Tennessee was coming off of a huge win against Pitt, was undefeated on the season, and was every writer’s kool-aid of choice to sip on.
Tennessee should not have lost this game. Top ten teams cannot blow 13 point leads at home to team from the Summit League.
But give credit where credit is due.
Oakland’s toughness, execution, and determination down the stretch allowed them to capitalize on Tennessee’s mistakes.