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This Week in UT Sports History – March 15th-21st

(Photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics)

This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly series written by RTI columnist Lexie Little

Southeastern Conference softball got underway this weekend as the No. 22 Lady Vols faced No. 12 LSU in a three-game series at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium in Knoxville. After dropping the first game of a doubleheader 2-1 on Saturday, Tennessee came back in game two to win 4-3. Both games went to eight innings. LSU proved too much on Sunday, outpowering the Lady Vols for an 11-3 victory.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of the weekend, however, came in the SEC men’s basketball tournament in Nashville. The Vols fell to No. 6 Alabama in a close semifinal matchup, 73-68, on Saturday. The team played without senior leader John Fulkerson who left the quarterfinal matchup against Florida after two elbows to the head from Florida’s Omar Payne resulted in facial injuries.

Freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer stepped up to lead the team with 20 and 18 points, respectively, in a strong offensive effort. However, Alabama prevailed and went on to barely win the SEC tournament title against LSU, 80-79.

The Vols now turn their attention to the NCAA Tournament, which kicks off with the First Four on Thursday, March 18.

While fans await March Madness, Rocky Top Insider takes a look back at moments this week in UT sports history.

March 18, 2010

Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl left the court with reason to celebrate early in March Madness. Well, two reasons.

On his 50th birthday, Pearl’s team advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament with a close win against San Diego State. Tennessee’s Melvin Goins hit a big three from the left side with less than 14 seconds remaining in the game to give Tennessee a 60-56 lead. The Vols would win 62-59.

“[Goins] was wide open, and he had been shooting the ball well,” Pearl said. “I did holler at him to stick that. It was obviously a wide open, clear look.”

Goins said he heard Pearl hollering, “Stick! Stick! Stick!” giving him the confidence to catch and shoot. On the night, he went 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.

Pearl had led Tennessee to the NCAA Tournament in each of his five seasons in Knoxville to that point. The Vols had exited the tournament in the first round in 2009, but the team made it to the school’s first Elite Eight appearance 10 days after the win against San Diego State. However, Tennessee lost a heartbreaker to No. 13 Michigan, 70-69 on March 28, 2010, keeping the team from the Final Four.

The birthday coach noted a determination in his team following the first-round win, an energy that would propel them where no Tennessee men’s team had gone before.

“This team very much does not want to go home,” Pearl said. Tennessean writer and columnist David Climer concurred, saying Tennessee did not look like a team “in a hurry to get to spring break.”

The Vols moved on to face Ohio, which handed Georgetown an upset in the first round. Tennessee made easy work of Ohio on March 20 in an 83-68 victory before beating No. 5 Ohio State, 76-73, six days later.

Tennessee reached the Sweet Sixteen under head coach Rick Barnes in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. Barnes and the Vols will look to make a run in 2021 starting this week.

March 19, 1999

Following the end of the 1999 men’s basketball season, legendary announcer and “Voice of the Vols” John Ward retired after 35 years calling Vol basketball games. He had also called football for 31 years.

On March 19, the Associated Press reported the news that Knoxville television sports anchor and Vol Network veteran Bob Kesling would take over for Ward, a position he retains to this day as director of broadcasting and play-by-play at the University of Tennessee.

“I don’t plan on filling John Ward’s shoes,” Kesling said upon assuming the role. “I want to make him proud of what we do. But I’m not going to try to be John Ward.”

Kesling walked on to Tennessee’s freshman football team in 1972 as a fullback. Ward hired him to edit film for the “Bill Battle Show” in 1974, working for the Vol Television Network as a UT student. He later called play-by-play for the Lady Vols from 1978 to 1999, calling six of Pat Summitt’s eight NCAA Women’s National Championships.

Former university President Joe Johnson said Kesling would be one of the most visible representatives of the university. He would be proven correct. Since 1999, Kesling has served as the play-by-play announcer for Tennessee football and basketball, updating fans on more than 70 stations of the Vol Network and hosting the weekly call-in show, “Vol Calls,” featuring Tennessee coaches and athletes.

March 20, 1999

One day after the Kesling announcement, Pat Summitt and the reigning champion Lady Vols looked to capture a fourth consecutive title by advancing from the East Regional semifinal against Virginia Tech. Tennessee (31-2) defeated the Hokies, 68-52.

The Hokies (28-3) put up a valiant effort in the second half, scoring 30 points. But their 22 in the first half remained no match for Tennessee’s early 35, which the Lady Vols extended by 33 points.

The victory gave the Lady Vols their 21st consecutive win in the NCAA tournament. They had won 26 of their last 27 in tournament play.

“We were beaten by a better basketball team,” Virginia Tech coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “They are very explosive. Give credit to our players for fighting for 40 minutes and not giving up.”

Summitt said her team knew better than to overlook any opponent and gave due credit to the Virginia Tech team.

“This time of the year, this basketball team isn’t going to overlook anyone,” Summitt said. They had learned so much during the previous three seasons, including the undefeated run in 1998.

The 1998-99 Lady Vols went 31-3 that season, losing in the Elite Eight. They captured both the SEC Regular Season Championship and SEC Tournament Championship titles. They could not, however, hang on for a fourth national title in four years.

Kellie Harper and the Lady Vols await their postseason fate with the NCAA Tournament Selection Show slated for tonight at 7 p.m.

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