In a season of milestones for Tennessee, the fourth-ranked Volunteers keep entering territory nearly uncharted in school history.
In their first appearance in the SEC semifinals since 1991, the Vols will look to move one step closer to their first SEC tournament title since 1979 as they face Arkansas on Saturday in Atlanta.
Tennessee, the SEC East’s top seed, has already set a school record for wins, won the program’s first outright SEC championship since 1967 and made the first appearance atop the national rankings in school history.
Success in the SEC tournament has been almost as rare for the Vols (29-3), but they managed to avoid what would have been a fourth straight loss in conference tournament play with an 89-87 win over South Carolina in the quarterfinals on Friday.
Tennessee guard Chris Lofton made a 3-pointer with 11.4 seconds left to put the Vols ahead, as they used an impressive offensive effort to win their fourth straight and 13th in the last 14.
“When he gets that look in his eye, we know to get him the ball,” Tennessee guard JaJuan Smith said of Lofton, who had been just 3-of-11 from the field before the shot. “He had it when Coach (Bruce Pearl) drew this play up, so we got him the ball.”
With Lofton struggling, Wayne Chism and Smith led the offense for Tennessee. Chism had 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting—also adding five blocked shots— while Smith had 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting, as the Vols shot 56.5 percent and had 27 assists on 35 baskets.
“From an offensive efficiency standpoint, you can’t ask for much more,” Pearl said.
Tyler Smith added 13 points for Tennessee, which had lost six of its previous seven SEC tournament games.
Despite sweating out a victory, Pearl thinks a close game will benefit his team in the long run.
“I think a close game will help us,” Pearl said. “We’ve got however many games left in this season, and every single one of them is for a championship.”
Arkansas (21-10) will also be looking to keep pace with the Vols after a lopsided loss in the regular season. The Razorbacks, the SEC West’s second seed, lost 93-71 at Tennessee on Feb. 13, as JaJuan Smith had 32 points and made all six of his 3-point attempts.
Arkansas solidified its chances for an NCAA tournament at-large berth with an 81-75 win over No. 18 Vanderbilt on Friday, but the Razorbacks will still be looking to advance to the SEC title game for the second straight year. They lost to Florida in the championship last season.
Against Vanderbilt, leading scorer Sonny Weems had just three points and shot 1-of-9 from the field, but five players scored in double figures for Arkansas, led by Gary Ervin and Darian Townes, who each had 18.
Ervin insisted the Razorbacks were focused on the task at hand and not the bigger picture of making the field of 65 when it is announced Sunday.
“We wanted to come out with a sense of urgency to win a basketball game; that was the only thing that was on our minds,” Ervin said. “We just wish we cold have done the same thing during the season: play smart basketball, play with that intensity and that urgency to win ballgames.”
The Razorbacks also dominated the glass against Vanderbilt, outrebounding the Commodores 45-24.
Arkansas had lost five straight games away from home before Friday’s game, but the Razorbacks are now 4-2 in neutral-site games.
Tennessee has won the previous two meetings between the teams in the SEC tournament, eliminating the Razorbacks in the first round in both 2002 and 2005.