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Tennessee Basketball wins most impressive SEC regular season championship ever

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It’s official. This year’s Tennessee Basketball team is truly different than any team led by Rick Barnes ever. The Vols proved that with their 66-59 win at the South Carolina Gamecocks Wednesday night to clinch the SEC regular season championship.

Just over a week ago, the task for the Vols was simple but difficult. They had four ranked teams remaining on their schedule, and the first three, against the Auburn Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide and South Carolina, would be de facto elimination games for the SEC title. UT won all three.

Entering Wednesday’s game at South Carolina, Tennessee Basketball, ranked No. 4 in both polls, was not just looking to clinch the championship. They were also looking to avenge a close loss at home from earlier in the year to the same team, led by the league’s Coach of the Year, Lamont Paris.

In a slugfest, dictated by Paris’ superb defensive coaching, the Vols were able to hold on. They built a 13-point lead in the first half and never trailed. However, that doesn’t mean South Carolina wasn’t going to make it a game late. This is a tough team, and again, we can’t stress how brilliant of a coach Paris is.

The Gamecocks cut it to three with just over a minute to go, and UT was going to have to win it at the free throw line, which they did. Up 59-56 with 47 seconds left, Dalton Knecht, who was dominant on the night and took over with 26 points on 5-of-11 from three, passed out of a double-team and found Jonas Aidoo, who drew a foul.

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Aidoo hit one of two free throws, but that was enough to put the Vols in control. He was key as always, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds. UT was going to have to win from the foul line, as Paris’ coaching took them out of rhythm. They did just that, hitting 19 of 22 from the stripe.

Patience was key. They drew fouls and didn’t rush their offense all night, which allowed them to not go on any offensive droughts and stay in control. That’s why Zakai Zeigler had 13 points and seven assists, and Santiago Vescovi had two steals while Josiah-Jordan James had two blocks to help the defense.

This has always been the type of game Barnes loses. Sure, Barnes has achieved accomplishments. He reached the Final Four in 2003 and won the SEC Tournament title in 2022. In both instances, though, he beat an unranked Cinderella team to reach those milestones.

Whenever Barnes had to beat a quality team to reach an accomplishment, he always came up short. Just consider the 2018-19 team, the best he’s had since at UT. With the outright SEC regular season title on the line at the LSU Tigers, he lost. Then, with a share of the title on the line, he lost at Auburn.

That same team was ranked No. 1 for three weeks and won 30 games. Then, with the SEC Tournament title on the line, once again against Auburn, he lost again. with a chance to reach the Elite Eight, only once in school history, he lost to the Purdue Boilermakers.

Simply put, Barnes always comes up shorts in games like this, but he finally got over the hump. The difference was his willingness to play small this year and having a go-to scorer in Knecht. As a result, it’s safe to believe in what this team can do in March.

With the win, Tennessee Basketball improves to 24-6 and 14-3 in league play. They will host the Kentucky Wildcats for their final regular season game Saturday. South Carolina falls to 24-6, 12-5 in league play and will visit the Mississippi State Bulldogs Saturday.

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