On Saturday, Texas A&M traveled to Knoxville as 11-point underdogs for their first true road game of the season. Would the Ags be able to maintain their momentum from the season opening 16 point victory against Arkansas?Let's dive in.
No changes. When you win a conference game by 16, you run it back.
Full starting lineup: Harris/Caruso/Green/Jones/Roberson
For the second consecutive game, the first half was in itself a tale of two halves. A&M stayed within arms reach during the first ten minutes, using some nice early outside shooting and quick hands on defense (4 early TO's) to counteract the Vols' obvious advantage down low. Tavario Miller (18 minutes; 5 rebounds / 2 blocks / 2 points) showed flashes of his future impact on the game by sending top UT scorer Jordan McRae to the bench with foul trouble after a hustle play on a loose ball, and the ship seemed somewhat steady.
Then the latter 10 minutes hit. And they were an absolute disaster. Tennessee started hitting some shots and crashing the boards, and our Ags wilted. The lack of rebounding focus combined with our customary first half offensive swoon (nine minutes without a field goal) and the Volunteer lead swelled to 14. Halftime score: Tennessee 32, Texas A&M 18.
Second Half (the anatomy of a comeback)
Coming out of the break looking at a veteran opponent, 18,000 fans, and a 14 point deficit can be quite daunting... so it helps to try to break the game down into manageable parts. Whittle the lead down in small chunks, keep playing a possession at a time, and give yourself a chance to be in the game down the stretch. And that's exactly what our Aggies did.
Second half begins (Down 14)
Jamal Jones (33 minutes; 23 points / 8-19 FG / 5-10 3PT) comes out with his hair on fire, clearly having received a green light from Kennedy and the coaching staff after a pedestrian opening period. He hits two early threes, and a huge moving screen call on McCrae sends him back to the bench with three fouls
First Media Timeout (Down 12)
Jones keeps shooting, this time taking his game inside the arc (and building off the variety he showed against Arkansas). Alex Caruso (37 minutes; 12 points / 8 assists / 4 steals / 4-10 FG) cranks up his aggressiveness as well, combining a strong take of his own with a beautiful dump to Fitzgerald. Tennessee's only bucket comes from a questionable and 1 call - the defensive intensity is back
Second Media Timeout (Down 8)
Jones hits another three, and Miller continues an excellent night with two more offensive boards. Caruso then turns a steal into a transition opportunity, and a 12-2 run is in the works. UT responds with a huge three to stem the momentum, but another Caruso drive (can't overstate his aggressiveness in the 2nd half) combines with a Jordan Green #SCTop10 highlight dunk to knock the lead down to 5. McCrae, who has been invisible up to this point, admittedly does a nice job getting on the ball and forcing his way to the free throw line to stem the tide.
Third Media Timeout (Down 5)
Our offense cooled down for a bit here, but our top-notch defense kept it close. (Quick note: Tennessee averages less than 10 TO's per game and we forced 16). Two more strong Jamal Jones drives are partially offset by a nice move down low by Tennessee's Jeronne Maymon (35 minutes; 9 points / 15 rebounds / 3-8 FG).
Final Media Timeout (Down 4)
Tennessee runs a nice play coming out of the break to go up by 6, and Jamal Jones immediately responds with a three. An A&M stop is followed by another drive by Jones (fouled, hits 1 of 2) to give him 20 points in the second half, and the UT lead is two. That possession leads to a huge offensive board by Maymon, forcing the Aggies to foul with under a minute to play.
The stretch (Down 2)
Two Tennessee made free throws are followed by the 4,942,532nd extremely strong take by an A&M guard (Caruso this time) and the Vol lead is back to two. (Note: Caruso hit his head hard on the drive and stayed in. Champion). After the ensuing inbounds pass, McRae is called for an offensive foul and the A&M bench explodes. We now have the ball with a chance to win. Caruso goes hard to the rack yet again (recent hard foul be damned)... and misses both free throws. Crap. Now things are looking dire. But with a chance to put the game away, UT's Maymon misses both of his free throws to keep the Vol lead at two.
Then, with four seconds remaining, Antwan Space (yes, the 2-16 3PT shooter this season) steps back and hits a nononoNONONO-YESSSSSSSS dagger. A desperation heave by McRae was missed and that was the ballgame. The improbable comeback was complete.
(Note: Space's shot comes at 2:45 of this clip. Watch the remainder of the video for the bench reaction and Caruso's jersey-pop to the student section)
Game MVP: Jamal Jones. He had a big basket ready every time Tennessee threatened to pull away.
Once again, the Ags shut down the most pressing offensive threat by the opposition. Jordan McRae (23 minutes; 2-8 FG / 1-6 3PT / 9 points) led the SEC in scoring coming into this game, and he was a non factor for large stretches. Jarnell Stokes (24 minutes; 6 points / 5 rebounds / 2-5 FG), the Vols best post player, was also kept in check after a promising start.
And offensively, it all came down to Caruso and Jones. They kept us afloat and made Space's winner possible. Can't say enough about the way they imparted their will on the 2nd half. With 0-2 South Carolina coming to Reed on Wednesday, a 3-0 start is a very real possibility.
Thoughts on the comeback? Heading to College Station this Wednesday? Hit the comments below.