Tennessee laid it on the line for three games in Nashville, but every run has its end. The Vols saw their unlikely postseason success conclude on Friday evening against LSU in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament when the Tigers held on for an 84-75 victory in a game the Vols battled in until the final minutes.
Here are five takeaways from the season-ending loss for the Vols as they wrapped up a 15-19 campaign in Year 1 under Rick Barnes.
1. Toll of the tournament catches up with UT late: The SEC Tournament – by design – is especially tough on the teams that finish at the bottom of the SEC standings. Tennessee and Auburn played late on Wednesday evening, and then after UT’s improbable win over Vanderbilt on Thursday, the Vols ended up playing three games in approximately 40 hours in Nashville.
Already shorthanded and outmatched at many spots, Tennessee put together a valiant effort on Friday evening, but a bigger, deeper and overall more talented LSU team was just too much, especially as the Tigers went on a late 10-0 run that concluded with 3:26 left in the game that essentially put it out of reach.
2. Officiating questions linger: Especially early, the officials seemed intent on not letting either team get into a rhythm. Just over 10 minutes into the game, 16 total fouls had been called by the officials on their way to calling 36 in the game. Many were touch fouls away from the action. It made it tough to watch at time. It’s difficult to say if one team got the edge from that – bad calls seemed to go both ways – but it’s something the league will need to continue to evaluate moving forward. Barnes did seem to disagree with a late offensive foul called on Robert Hubbs III.
“Officials have to be on top of their games too,” Barnes said in his postgame comments. “But those are – they’re game changers. That was a huge sequence right there. It was a really big one. And, again, the 3 – and Robert’s two missed free throws were big at that time. It’s just really – you talk about it, it’s a three-possession game. I could pick a couple of them.”
3. Returning players step up: A silver lining late in the season has been that many younger players who will be back in 2016-17 have logged extensive minutes and have grown as players. Guard Detrick Mostella is one such player who found some offensive consistency in Nashville. He had another strong offensive output on Friday with 19 points. Robert Hubbs III, who was up and down all season, also finished on a high note, matching Mostella’s game-high 19 points on Friday.
“I’ve said before, I’ve always thought that Robert Hubbs should be our leading scorer this year,” Barnes said. “He’s missed a lot of time in practice with injuries, but going forward, he’s got something to build on. Detrick has gotten better. He really has. He’s still learning how to play. He still gets himself in some situations, but you’ve got to love his desire and his competitiveness.”
4. LSU excels inside: The Tigers didn’t seem to have a particularly crisp night, nor did it look like they always had a great plan on offense, but the one thing that did work was getting the ball inside and getting easy buckets against an undersized Tennessee squad. LSU, which got 15 points and eight rebounds from super-freshman Ben Simmons, outscored UT 44-30 in points in the paint on Frida,y and also held the edge in rebounds and second-chance points. It was no secret all season that the Vols were simply going to be overmatched in the paint at times and that was evident on Friday.
5. Senior moments: It might not have been exactly what Armani Moore was envisioning for his final game as he battled foul trouble and only finished with six points and six boards, but he did set his teammates up with eight assists. Devon Baulkman struggled from 3-point territory (1 of 9), but did finish with 13 total points. Derek Reese, who played some of the best basketball of his career down the stretch, went out with five points and six boards.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our seniors,” Barnes said. “They’ve been through a lot the last three years with three different coaching changes. And for them to really buy into what we asked them to do this year and we’ve had to deal with obviously losing a key player to our team and some injuries along the way, but I can’t say enough of what I feel for these guys right now because they’ve given us everything they could possibly give us.”
Final stats from Nashville: pic.twitter.com/OGk8yjlu1k
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) March 11, 2016