“Out-played and out-coached!”

“They looked like a team that was satisfied to have just beaten Kentucky.” 

“They’re too (expletive) soft.” 

Holy over-reaction, Batman! 

Those were some of the criticisms that were offered of the basketball Vols after Tennessee’s 84-64 loss to Auburn in the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday. How quickly things change! Less than 24 hours after East Tennessee was ecstatic because of UT’s win over Kentucky in the tournament semifinals, watching and rewatching the postgame interviews of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner while placing the team’s faith in God on a pedestal as one of the traits that makes it great, the tide had turned. The social media phenomenon known as Vol Twitter was bitterly disappointed in the loss and didn’t shy away from venting its feelings.

Can I just be the first (or at least the next) to say that there is no shame in losing the SEC championship game? 

Sure, it was disappointing. I watched the first half before having to scoot out the door for a youth-level basketball championship game of my own, and then I tried to listen to Bob and Bert on the radio before turning it off in disgust. The loss was disappointing. The effort — or lack thereof — was even more disheartening. 

The SEC Tournament is an event that has given new meaning to the word “snakebit.” Tennessee hasn’t won the tournament since Jimmy Carter was in office and has been to the championship game just four times since. If Tennessee couldn’t win the tournament in 2019, it might not be completely unfair to ask whether any of us can honestly hope to see the Vols win it again in our lifetime. 

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of all was to acknowledge that Bruce Pearl — the man who resurrected Tennessee basketball from the ashes before breaking the hearts of Vols fans with the improper recruiting barbecue that ultimately got him fired — denied UT a regular season conference championship, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a SEC Tournament championship all in the span of just eight days.

But one game shouldn’t overshadow everything that Tennessee has accomplished. Those of us who haven’t shared the stage and the spotlight can’t put into words how difficult it is to win a game like the Vols won against Kentucky on Saturday, then rebound to put together another great effort against a hungry team less than 24 hours later. Sunday’s effort was a classic letdown. 

That’s not intended as an excuse for Tennessee’s performance on Sunday. Final Four-caliber teams don’t have letdowns — not at this point of the season, when every moment of every game is magnified. But the old phrase, “left it all on the court,” still means something. And Tennessee literally left it all on the court against Kentucky. Saturday’s game was more than just a high-stakes, well-hyped game between two rivals in a raucous, intense environment. It was a game that required the Vols to come back from eight points down in the final three minutes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. 

Ponder the euphoria that UT fans felt when Turner sank the top-of-the-key 3-pointer against the Wildcats with just seconds remaining in Saturday’s game. Imagine having to get yourself mentally psyched for an even more important game less than a day later. Then multiply that by a dozen or so to account for the fact that we’re merely fans, without real skin in the game.

Yes, I was disappointed that the Vols didn’t wrap up the SEC title, and even moreso in their lack of effort. As a long-suffering Tennessee fan, I remember the 9-22 UT team that shocked the conference by winning three games in three days — capped with a stunning victory over a Litterial Green-led Georgia team in the semifinals — to reach the conference championship game in 1990. I’m hardly young anymore, which makes it even harder to believe that UT hasn’t won a conference tournament championship in my lifetime. But I would be lying — and, deep down, I believe you would be, too — if I said I would trade the final 2:58 of Saturday’s game against Kentucky for a conference championship. You can’t hang a banner just because you beat Kentucky, but that comeback will rank right up there with Lofton-over-Durant and Dane Branshaw’s steal-and-bucket against Florida as the greatest Tennessee basketball moment of the modern era.

At this point, anything less of the school’s first Final Four appearance is going to be a disappointment for UT fans. We’ve conditioned ourselves to expect it. This isn’t like 2010, when it seemed okay to finish one point short of beating Michigan State in the Elite Eight. That year’s team was a preseason Top 10 team and was ranked throughout the season, but overcame some adversity to reach the Elite Eight against some fairly long odds. Just getting there seemed like enough. This year’s Tennessee team has been ranked in the Top 10 all season, and spent a considerable length of time at No. 1. 

Part of me thinks — especially after the Auburn disaster — that it’s probably time for Tennessee fans to condition themselves for that disappointment. The Vols have all the tools to get to the NCAA Tournament’s third weekend and to Minneapolis for college basketball’s biggest stage, but it wouldn’t be completely surprising to see the Vols bow out of the tournament on opening weekend again; the potential Round 2 matchup with Cincinnati in Columbus on Sunday feels like a bracket-buster waiting to happen.

But even if UT were to flame out against Colgate on Friday, going one-and-done in the tournament, it cannot diminish what this season has meant. In a sport that is generating an increasing number of negative headlines, Tennessee’s team is an easy one to root for. This year’s Vols have been described as the most likable Tennessee team ever, in any sport, and that’s hard to argue against. Williams and Schofield are legitimate role models for young basketball players throughout the Volunteer State. Rick Barnes is a class act whose squeaky clean character and reputation are without equal in big-time college basketball. 

While I’m typically skeptical of the sincerity of athletes who “give glory to God” or “thank their Lord and Savior” during TV interviews, this team’s faith seems genuine. Even if you aren’t a Christian, you have to appreciate this team’s chemistry: a coach who clearly and genuinely loves his players, and players who clearly and genuinely love their coach, as well as each other. These kids in orange aren’t McDonald’s All-Americans, blue chip recruits whose paths to stardom were paved for them. These guys are under-rated, overlooked recruits that college basketball’s blueblood programs didn’t want when they came out of high school, and they’ve paved their own path to success through grit and determination.

As college athletics continue to swirl down the drain with fresh scandals ever emerging, this Tennessee team exemplifies everything that is still right in amateur sports. If it’s possible for storybook endings to be written in college sports, with the good guy marrying the princess and living happily ever after, this Tennessee team will march to a national championship. But even if it doesn’t, that can’t erase the fact that UT fans have much reason to be extremely proud that this group of student-athletes and their coach represent their school, their region and their state. In a world where winning trumps everything else, let’s not let an underwhelming, uninspired effort in the SEC championship game cause us to forget that.

From the Pressbox is a weekly sports column written by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Photo: UTsports.com.