Lamonte Turner is no stranger to knocking down big shots. In fact, those are the moments he lives for, and Saturday was no different.
In nearly the same exact spot in the same exact moment as a year ago against Kentucky at Rupp Arena, the junior guard found himself with the ball in his hands and less than 35 seconds on the clock.
Squaring his shoulders, Turner rose up and confidently released a shot that he’s practiced thousands of times throughout his childhood.
Same spot, same result.
“When it left my hands, I didn’t doubt it all,” Turner said. “You know how many game-winners I’ve hit against Kentucky in my head?”
Admiral Schofield scored 21 points, Grant Williams tallied 20 points and seven rebounds and Jordan Bone added 18 points and five assists as Tennessee downed Kentucky, 82-78, to advance to the SEC Championship game for the second straight year.
Turner had just seven points on 3 of 9 shooting, but his final three points were all that mattered. He hadn’t hit a 3-pointer all night, but if you ask his teammates, they were as confident in him as ever.
“He works as hard as anyone and he’s been struggling, but we trust him,” Schofield said. “When I saw that he was open, I would have been selfish to not give him the opportunity to knock it down.”
The shot may have put Tennessee ahead for good, but the odds weren’t in their favor for a majority of the second half. Despite taking a two-point lead into the intermission, Kentucky quickly rattled off a 6-0 run and jumped in front. It wasn’t the last time the Vols would fall behind, either.
As Tennessee began to settle for outside shots, the Wildcats found the rhythm that had been lacking with P.J. Washington in foul trouble for much of the opening period.
And just as it had haunted Tennessee in the past, Kyle Alexander’s struggles with foul trouble manifested themselves once again. Picking up just one in the first half, the senior forward was called for four personals in the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
The Vols were able to overcome his absence this time around, although their chances appeared bleak coming down the stretch.
Down eight with 2:58 to play in regulation, it certainly appeared that Kentucky was well on its way to advancing to yet another SEC Championship under John Calipari.
That’s when Tennessee’s veteran resolve kicked in.
Fighting and clawing their way back within striking distance, Williams found himself alone in the corner with 1:31 on the game clock. His shot had been off, but his courage in himself never wavered.
His teammates didn’t do a bad job instilling confidence in him, either, and the two-time reigning SEC Player of the Year delivered.
“It was just about trusting myself because my confidence was a bit down,” Williams said. “Derrick (Walker) told me ‘there’s a reason why you’re a First Team All-American...it was just a sigh of relief.”
Tennessee wasn’t out of the hole just yet, but Turner made sure it wouldn’t be playing from behind with just a few possessions left. It wasn’t just that shot that satisfied his coach, however, it was the effort from the team as a whole.
“Really proud of our guys. We were down eight with two-something to go, made some critical defensive stops,” Rick Barnes said. “Offensively we went back to what we normally do, that is play inside-out.”
With just one game remaining before the NCAA Tournament, the Vols will be looking to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in Knoxville since 1979. To do that, they’ll have to go through their former coach and a gritty, tough-minded Auburn Tigers team.
Regardless of that reality, Tennessee now has all the puzzle pieces perfectly in line. It’ll be up to them whether those are connected or scrapped following Sunday’s matchup.
“That’s just the soul of this team and its competitiveness, these guys really care” Williams said. “We’re there for each other and we had no doubt we were going to come back and get this done.”