This past decade has been an up-and-down 10 years for Tennessee’s men’s basketball program. The Vols started the decade making it to the school’s first-ever Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament and ended it by being No. 1 for four-straight weeks and making it to the Sweet Sixteen at the end of last season.
But in between all that was a roller coaster.
Bruce Pearl was fired amid an NCAA investigation in 2011, Cuonzo Martin left for California after the Vols’ Sweet Sixteen run in 2014, Donnie Tyndall lasted one year as head coach before being fired amid NCAA investigations, and Rick Barnes fell into UT’s lap after Texas let him go.
Tennessee made the NCAA Tournament just as often as they missed it this past decade, making it to the Big Dance five times and missing it five times. There were many high points, but there were plenty of lows, too.
Today, however, I want to focus on the good. Tennessee had a lot of quality and memorable wins over the last decade, and choosing the top 10 wasn’t an easy task. There are several great wins that got left off this list, and there’s a whole slew of “honorable mentions” I could include.
But I had to trim this down to just 10, so here’s my pick of the Vols’ 10 best wins in men’s basketball over the last decade.
10. 88-83 OT Win at Vanderbilt, 2019
There are better wins over better teams for Tennessee over the last 10 years than this one, but this game had to be included because of the singular performance of Grant Williams. The two-time SEC Player of the Year helped cement his second-straight POY award with his dominating 43-point performance that saw him break a school record in the process. Williams went a perfect 23-of-23 from the free throw line in this game, breaking the school record for most consecutive free throws made all while becoming the first Vol since Allan Houston in 1990 to score 43 or more points in a game. That performance is tied with Houston and Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, and Reggie Johnson for the fifth-most points scored in a single game in UT history.
The game itself was plenty exciting, as a heavy underdog Vanderbilt team scrapped their way to a back-and-forth contest that took overtime to decide. Williams’ performance was the deciding factor, as he also chipped in eight rebounds, four blocks, and two assists to go with his 43 points.
9. 88-58 Win vs. No. 25 Kentucky, 2013
The biggest win Tennessee owns over arch-rival Kentucky happened this decade. The Wildcats were playing their first game without star center Nerlens Noel, and the Vols absolutely crushed Kentucky without him. The Thompson-Boling Arena crowd could barely believe their eyes as UT raced out to a 50-26 lead at halftime, and Tennessee kept the gas pedal down in the second half, eventually winning by 30 points. Cuonzo Martin’s UT squads weren’t known for their offensive outputs, but this game was an outlier, as Trae Golden’s 24 points and eight assists led the way in the blowout. To this day, it’s the largest margin of victory for UT over Kentucky.
8. 78-65 OT Win vs. Iowa in NCAA Tournament, 2014
Tennessee hadn’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2010, and they hadn’t made it back to the Big Dance since 2011. That changed in 2014, but only barely. The Vols snuck into the 2014 tournament as an 11-seed in the play-in game against Iowa, and UT looked on the brink of elimination with 2:30 to go when Iowa grabbed a 62-61 lead. Tennessee would grab a 64-62 lead with 25 seconds to go, but then Roy Devyn Marble tied up the game with 18 seconds to go, forcing overtime.
In the extra period, Tennessee came out on fire, dominating the final five minutes of the game by not allowing a single Hawkeye field goal. UT outscored Iowa 14-1 in overtime, and that sent them into the main field of the tournament and propelled them to their Sweet Sixteen run that season.
7. 71-52 Win vs. No. 4 Kentucky, 2019
Not even a month prior in the 2018-19 season, Tennessee got embarrassed up in Lexington, with Kentucky handing the Vols a crushing 86-69 loss. The Vols struggled the weeks after that, beating Vanderbilt in an ugly game in Knoxville and losing on the road in overtime to LSU. A last-second win over Ole Miss seemed to give UT some mojo back, and the No. 7 Vols were ready to host No. 4 Kentucky in one of the biggest games in Thompson-Boling Arena history.
The atmosphere delivered, as did the Vols.
Tennessee roared past the Wildcats, giving Kentucky payback for their blowout loss in Lexington with a 19-point win in Knoxville. The game marked only the fourth time the two teams had played each other with both schools ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll, and one of those other three instances came earlier that same season in Lexington. The Vols reasserted themselves, but the rubber match would await the two rivals two weeks later. More on that in a moment.
6. 83-77 OT Win vs. Iowa in Second Round of NCAA Tournament, 2019
It wouldn’t be a Tennessee-Iowa game in the NCAA Tournament without it going to overtime, and that’s exactly what happened in the last NCAA Tournament of the decade. Just like in 2014, the Vols and Hawkeyes needed an extra period to decide things in the postseason. This time, UT held a large halftime advantage, leading Iowa 49-28. But the Hawkeyes stormed back, making three pointer after three pointer while also delivering at the free throw line to eventually tie the game at 71-all with 20 seconds remaining.
But, just like last time, Tennessee ended up dominating Iowa in overtime, outscoring Iowa 12-6 in the final period to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, the Vols’ first appearance there since 2014.
5. 61-59 Win at No. 24 Kentucky, 2018
Before their win in 2018, Tennessee’s last victory in Lexington was all the way back in 2006, with the Vols losing 10-straight games on the road against the Wildcats in that stretch.
Finally, in 2018 the Vols did something they’ve only done 17 times in 108 tries: Beat Kentucky in Lexington.
The Vols needed a clutch three-pointer from Lamonte Turner with 28 seconds to go to grab a 59-58 lead, and Admiral Schofield’s dunk with four seconds left was the exclamation point on Tennessee’s first win in Lexington in over a decade. UT held the Wildcats to just 3-of-14 shooting from three, and Turner’s 16 points — and that decisive three — helped lead the Vols to a huge and rare victory on the road against Kentucky.
4. 76-73 Win vs. No. 1 Gonzaga, 2018
Tennessee entered the 2018-19 season with tons of hype and a top-10 team in the preseason polls. But after an early overtime stumble against then-No. 2 Kansas, there were questions about whether or not UT was the real deal.
Those questions were silenced two weeks later in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Vols upended No. 1 Gonzaga 76-73 thanks in large part to the heroics of Admiral Schofield. Tennessee lost Grant Williams to a fifth foul with 2:30 remaining in the game, but Schofield had already carried the team for much of the game and hoisted them on his back for the stretch run, sinking a three with 1:20 to go to give the Vols a 73-71 lead, then nailing a three-pointer with 24 seconds remaining as the go-ahead bucket. Schofield scored UT’s final 11 points, and he finished with a game-high 30 points.
The win gave Tennessee their first victory over a top-ranked team in eight years, and it was only the Vols’ fifth win in 19 tries against the No. 1 team in the country in men’s basketball in program history.
3. 82-78 Win vs. Kentucky in SEC Tournament Semifinals, 2019
It wasn’t the SEC Tournament Finals, but it sure felt like it in Nashville.
Tennessee and Kentucky battled back and forth in the semifinals of the 2019 SEC Tournament in the biggest rubber match of the season. After both teams had blown out the other on their respective home courts, the third match-up on a neutral court was one for the ages.
Kentucky looked to have the game on lockdown with a 72-64 lead with 2:58 to go in the game. But Tennessee wouldn’t go away, as Grant Williams scored eight of Tennessee’s next 11 points to give UT a slight 75-74 edge. Kentucky’ PJ Washington tipped in a bucket to give the Wildcats a 76-75 lead with 1:10 to go, but then Lamonte Turner worked his magic again, hitting a clutch three-pointer with 31 seconds remaining to give UT a 78-76 lead. Jordan Bone would connect on all his free throws down the stretch to salt the game away and give Tennessee their first SEC Tournament victory over Kentucky since 1979 and only their fifth ever against the Wildcats in 17 match-ups against them in the tournament.
2. 76-68 Win vs. No. 1 Kansas, 2010
Tennessee’s top two wins of the decade both come at the very beginning of it. The Vols’ entered their January 10th match-up with No. 1 Kansas as big underdogs following the dismissal of Tyler Smith and the suspensions of Cam Tatum, Brian Williams, and Melvin Goins. But the undermanned Vols stunned the top-ranked Jayhawks in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze led the way in scoring for the Vols with 17 and 16 points, respectively, but it was a three-pointer from bench player Skylar McBee that will never be forgotten from this game.
Kansas had started to go on a run and had cut Tennessee’s lead to 71-68 with 1:12 to go. But with just 36 seconds remaining, McBee received a pass and launched a three. As the ball went through the net, the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd erupted, and UT had a commanding 74-68 lead with just over half a minute to go. Kansas would miss every other shot they took from that point on, and Tennessee pulled off the massive upset despite missing four players.
1. 76-73 Win vs. Ohio State in Sweet Sixteen, 2010
Tennessee has only been to one Elite Eight in school history, and it happened right at the beginning of this decade. So of course the win that sent them there is the top win on this list. It also happens that the game itself was an exciting one.
Three years ago, the Vols lost a heart-breaker to one-seed Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen, 85-84, after holding a huge halftime lead. But in 2010, the Vols got their revenge, forcing Big Ten Player of the Year Evan Turner to try and play Super Man and failing down the stretch with the defense of JP Prince thwarting him.
Wayne Chism scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half, and Brian Williams tipped in the go-ahead bucket with 32 seconds left to give UT a 74-73 lead. Two Bobby Maze free throws extended Tennessee’s lead to 76-73 with 13 seconds left, and Evan Turner — who scored 21 of his 31 points in the second half — tried to will his team to victory.
His first three-pointer failed to connect, but he grabbed his own miss. His desperation heave was blocked by Prince, and Tennessee celebrated their first Sweet Sixteen victory in school history.