Kennedy Chandler- SECT MVP

Tennessee freshman guard Kennedy Chandler celebrates after being named the SEC Tournament's MVP at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, on Sunday, March 13, 2022.

TAMPA, Fla. – Tennessee freshman guard Kennedy Chandler came out of the game not once, not twice, but three times with a right ankle injury in the Vols’ quarterfinal win over Mississippi State Friday night.

With the Vols a virtual-lock for the NCAA Tournament at that time, no one would have blamed Chandler for wanting to sit out at least the rest of that game – if not the rest of the SEC Tournament – to be fully healthy for the Vols’ run in the NCAA Tournament.

That’s not how Chandler saw it.

“I know I twisted my ankle, but I wanted to fight through, come back and play with my guys and win the SEC championship,” Chandler said. “And that's what happened today.”

The All-SEC freshman scored 14 points and made 4 three-pointers as the No. 2 seed Vols defeated No. 8 Texas A&M 65-50 Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, to win their first SEC Championship since 1979.

Chandler opened the scoring over a minute into the game with a three-pointer that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Fueled by his bucket, Tennessee opened the game on a 14-0 run.

“The brotherhood that we have in this locker room, I wouldn't want any other guys in our locker room,” junior guard Josiah-Jordan James said. “I wouldn't trade them for the world. I think that just helps us on the court.”

The old basketball adage is that guard play wins games in March, and Chandler proved that first hand Sunday.

After the first media timeout, Texas A&M switched to a zone defense and it gave the Vols fits. They went the next almost six minutes without scoring and the Aggies climbed right back into the game – that is, until Chandler stepped in.

The Memphis native hit his second three-pointer to end the Vols’ scoring drought at five minutes and 52 seconds and rekindle their momentum.

Chandler’s last two triples in the game – at the 2:45 mark in the first half and the 16:35 mark in the second half – came at moments when Texas A&M had cut into Tennessee’s deficit. Chandler’s final first-half three stopped a 5-0 Aggie mini-run and brought Tennessee’s back to double-digits. In the second half, he halted a 7-0 run that the Aggies after they had pulled within five points of Tennessee.

“The way they've grown into the confidence they have for each other is really something that we're all proud of, and as you know, it is key,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of Tennessee’s guards. “It really is, but all of them at different times throughout the game today made big plays for us.”

With his 14-point, 7-assist performance Sunday, Chandler finished the tournament averaging 14.7 points, 5.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Chandler scored 11 points as the Vols eliminated Mississippi State – playing 27 minutes with a bad ankle – and tied for a game-high 19 points on 8-for-16 shooting as the Vols bounced rival Kentucky in the semis.

For his weekend, Chandler was named to the All-Tournament team as well as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Chandler, however, was quick to credit his teammates for putting him in a position to succeed.

“That wouldn't have happened without these two guys (Santiago Vescovi and James) and my teammates to make this happen,” Chandler said.

Chandler – a five-star prospect out of high school – had multiple offers, and he could have gone to any college of his choosing. Yet he wanted to come to Tennessee and play for the revered player-developer Barnes, because he knew it would make him a better player.

That decision paid off for Chandler. After into camp with the expectation that everything would be easy, Barnes quickly taught him the challenges of playing basketball in the SEC.

Chandler is a consensus first-round prospect in this year’s NBA Draft, so his time at Tennessee is drawing to a close. But while he is here and the Vols are looking to make a run in the Big Dance, Chandler will continue to work hard each and every day.

“He has taught me so much,” Chandler said of Barnes. “I can't even say all of it honestly, but I just love him for that, and I want him to push me every single day to be the best player I can be and that is what he has done ever since I have been here.”

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