— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) March 4, 2018
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Rick Barnes took the Tennessee basketball job three years ago with every intention of hanging banners.
On Saturday, the Vols earned their banner under Barnes and first SEC men’s basketball championship since 2008.
Tennessee, a team picked to finish 13th in the SEC in the preseason, clinched a share of the title with a 66-61 victory over Georgia.
The Vols open play in the SEC Tournament in St. Louis at 7 p.m. ET Friday against the winner of a Thursday game between No. 7 seed Mississippi State and No. 10 seed LSU.
Tennessee is the No. 2 seed, and will be trying to win the league tournament for the first time since 1979.
A sellout crowd of 22, 237 at Thompson-Boling Arena was on hand Saturday, getting so rowdy that play had to be stopped when a water bottle was thrown on the floor in the closing minutes.
The first half was a physical exhibition, with elbows thrown and shoves almost every time down the court.
“It’s still a rivalry,” Tennessee junior Admiral Schofield said. “You know when you play Georgia, it’s going to be a physical game.”
Barnes did his part to raise the intensity, bringing full-court pressure on Georgia throughout the contest, pushing the pace.
“I think our full-court pressure helped us in the second half,” said Barnes, whose No. 16-ranked Vols appeared to wear down the Bulldogs, who led by 8 points at halftime. “It was really two teams that were battling every possession.”
Georgia won the battle of the boards 38-28, but the Vols outscored the Bulldogs in the paint 26-20 and were 17-of-18 shooting free throws compared to Georgia’s 9-of-15 performance.
Another key was that Tennessee had just 4 turnovers in the game.
“I thought our guys were locked in, even in the first half,” Barnes said. “I walked off the court at halftime thinking we didn’t play bad, they just were really good.”
Indeed, Georgia made 7 of 12 shots from 3-point range in the opening 20 minutes before faltering in the second half, going 0 for 6 beyond the arc.
The Bulldogs entered the game ranked 13th in the SEC in 3-point shooting (31.8 percent).
SEC Player of the Year candidate Yante Maten had 12 points for Georgia in the first half, but Tennessee’s physical play and a shot to the jaw at some point might have gotten to Maten. The Bulldogs star didn’t score in the second half until there was less than 6 minutes left, clearly not as effective in the paint as the opening 20 minutes.
“I told the team at halftime we have to grind it out,” Barnes said. “We knew it was going to be tough, but the difference was we were much tougher the last 7 or 8 minutes [Saturday] than we were in Athens.”
Georgia beat Tennessee 73-62 on Feb. 17 in a game where the Vols got “out-toughed,” according to Barnes.
“We did get out-toughed, and that’s what we told our guys,” Barnes said. “I talked about at some point and time, we have to break through and beat Georgia. We hadn’t done it since I’ve been here.”
The Vols snapped a five-game losing streak to Georgia that dated to 2014.
“I told them to not have any fear, let’s go play, they knew what they were playing for, and that’s fine,” Barnes said. “I said ‘If you want to be a team that’s there every year, you want to be in this position, and it’s not going to be easy to be in position to win championships.”
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes discusses SEC title clinching win over Georgia
Posted by Tennessee Volunteers Insiders on Saturday, March 3, 2018