The Vols (17-10, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) consider their 68-62 home loss to Georgia on Feb. 6 a turning point in their season. They haven’t lost since. The only major-conference team that owns a longer active winning streak is No. 7 Georgetown with 10 straight victories.
“We just all decided it was never too late in the season to turn things around,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. “Losing at home against Georgia made everyone want to tighten up (their games). We talked about it among ourselves, and we’ve done a good job of it.”
Tennessee and Georgia (13-15, 7-8) meet again today in Athens. While Tennessee has surged since that Feb. 6 game, Georgia has gone in the other direction.
Georgia’s victory at Tennessee gave the Bulldogs a four-game winning streak and finally got them to the .500 mark after a 2-7 start. The streak would reach five games when Georgia beat Texas A&M 52-46, but the Bulldogs have lost four of five since. They blew a 17-point lead Wednesday and fell 63-62 at Vanderbilt on Kevin Bright’s jumper with eight-tenths of a second remaining.
“This team’s been pretty resilient,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “They’re going to need to be resilient again.”
The Bulldogs haven’t been playing that poorly during this stretch, but their penchant for close games leaves them with little margin for error. Five of Georgia’s last seven games were decided by seven points or fewer. The other two games went into overtime.
Georgia has dropped three straight road games despite leading in the final minute of regulation in each of them.
“Over the course of a season, eventually you think the breaks are going to even out,” Fox said. “We’ve had four games in a row I think now that have come down to the final possession of regulation.”
Georgia is seeking its first regular-season sweep of Tennessee since 2001, but the Vols have improved significantly since that first meeting.
“The biggest difference is just how we look at each other on the court, more as brothers now,” Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said. “It seems more sincere. When guys fall and stuff like that, we’re definitely sprinting over to help each other out. Hitting shots has definitely played a part in it, too.”
One other big difference for Tennessee is the emergence of junior guard Trae Golden, who sat out the first Georgia game with a strained right hamstring. Golden now is healthy and has averaged 18.7 points per game during this winning streak.
Tennessee also has done a much better job of playing perimeter defense. Georgia beat the Vols last month by shooting 11-of-20 from 3-point range.
Tennessee opponents have made just 27.4 percent of their 3-point attempts (25-of-91) in the six games since. No. 8 Florida leads the SEC in 3-pointers (236) and 3-point percentage (.384), but the Gators were 4-of-17 from beyond the arc and missed 12 of their last 13 attempts Tuesday in a 64-58 loss at Tennessee.
The Vols also have shown an ability to bounce back. In their last two games, they trailed by nine at Texas A&M and faced an early seven-point deficit against Florida. Tennessee won both contests and survived a grueling four-overtime marathon against Texas A&M.
“I think that’s been the biggest key in our growth as a team — the mental toughness, fighting through situations, being down in games and continuing to execute,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
That toughness was most essential in the aftermath of that first Georgia game. The loss dropped Tennessee’s record to 11-10 overall and 3-5 in SEC competition. The Vols allowed Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to shoot 9-of-12 and score 24 points, continuing their season-long inability to contain an opposing team’s star player.
Yet the Vols always believed the NCAA tournament remained within reach, even when their record suggested otherwise.
“It isn’t like we were ready to just give up and let down,” Tennessee forward Kenny Hall said of the team’s attitude at the time. “We’ve still got a season to finish and we’ve still got a lot more left in our tank. We’ve got to keep fighting. What kind of team would we be if we were to just lay down and give up when there’s more ballgames to be played? We’ve just got to keep chopping wood.”
That approach got Tennessee back into NCAA tournament contention.
Now it’s the plan Georgia must try to follow as it finishes up its season.