NASHVILLE – Lamonte Turner wasn’t sure exactly what happened.
The Tennessee junior guard was on the floor in front of the scorer’s table at Bridgestone Arena on Saturday afternoon. Hebatted the ball away from Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans seconds earlier, diving on the floor chasing it away from UK’s Keldon Johnson.
Either the ball went out off Johnson or the Wildcats freshman stepped out. It was no matter. Tennessee had the ball.
Eleven seconds later, Grant Williams made a corner 3-pointer and a wonderful feeling overtook Turner as the Vols took an improbable lead.
“I kind of felt like we were going to win the game,” Turner said.
Williams’ shot erased Kentucky’s lead, flipping UT from down eight with 2:58 to play to ahead by one with 1:31 left. But Turner’s heroics had one more imperative act.
Williams snared an offensive rebound with the Vols down one with 44 seconds remaining. Vols coach Rick Barnes drew up a play for Williams, who posted up with no options. He passed out to Admiral Schofield, who slashed toward the hoop and kicked out to an open Turner.
Turner buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key, dropping Kentucky just as he did last year with a game-winner at Rupp Arena.
“You know how many game-winners as a kid against Kentucky in my head?” Turner said. “I have done this a million times. To do it now, it feels good. It is something you dream about as a kid.”
Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden (23) advances into Kentucky guard Tyler Herro (14) during the first half of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament semifinal game at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, March 16, 2019. (Photo: Brianna Paciorka / KNS)
Tennessee will play for an SEC Tournament title on Sunday against Auburn, advancing to the final game thanks to a 74-second stretch that turned a sure loss into a classic 82-78 win.
“That’s just the soul of this team,” Williams said. “It’s competitiveness and the fact that these guys really care. We’re there for each other and we had no doubt that we were going to come back and get this game. Honestly, we just have faith in each other and have faith in the fact that we’re here for a reason.”
Schofield led Tennessee (29-4) with 21 points. Williams had 20, including 10 in the final 4:02 as the Vols beat Kentucky (27-6) for the second time this season.
“We told our team before today, it wasn’t going to be like Lexington, it wasn’t going to be like Knoxville, it was going to be somewhere in between,” Barnes said of the Vols and Wildcats exchanging blowout regular-season wins. “It was going to be a very close game, which it was.”
Williams appeared to be involved in the play that crushed Tennessee’s hopes of winning its first SEC Tournament title since 1979. The junior forward stepped in and attempted to draw a charge on Johnson.
Instead, Johnson converted a three-point play and the Vols trailed by eight – their largest deficit of the day – with less than three minutes to play.
“Three minutes is a lot of time in basketball,” guard Jordan Bone said.
Williams started the Tennessee comeback with a pair of free throws and the Vols forced a Tyler Herro travel near midcourt. Williams powered through Kentucky’s Reid Travis for a three-point play to pull the Vols within 72-69.
Bone and Turner ran over to Williams yelling as the Vols sensed the turning of the game played in a tight window between two Final Four-caliber teams.
“One of my coaches said, ‘That’s the greatest game I’ve ever been involved in,'” Barnes said. “It was a great game because it was two teams going at each other. They made a push, we made a push. Again, it was what everybody would expect from two teams that had really a great year, nice year. It was great.”
PJ Washington made a jumper to return Kentucky to a two-possession lead.
Schofield hit a 3-pointer – Tennessee’s first of the second half after missing its first eight attempts – to cut the lead to two.
“We didn’t get down when we were down by eight with 2:58 to go,” Schofield said. “We just kept pushing and we were tough enough to finish the game on top.”
Then Turner’s heroics began. He forced a Johnson turnover, getting into the freshman defensively a night after his defense was lauded against Mississippi State.
“Lamonte’s turnover, I knew we had them rattled right now,” Williams said. “We have them sped up, we have our chance to put ourselves in a great position to win this game.”
Williams made a clutch 3-pointer, nailing an open look off a Bone pass to the corner. Washington tipped in his own miss, giving Kentucky a one-point edge.
Schofield missed a long 3-pointer, but Williams soared over a group of Wildcats to pull down a one-handed rebound and call timeout.
Then Turner did the Wildcats in again, hitting a 3-pointer to send Tennessee on to the final game of the SEC Tournament for the second straight season.
“It’s just the fight and trust that we have in one another,” Bone said. “We trust the coaches. We trust what they give us and they trust us to go out there and execute it. It just goes to show the trust of this group. Grant made a wide-open three. Admiral had a good look. He could have taken it, but he kicked it out to Lamonte. That is trust.
“That is trust within this group. I feel like that is something that is going to take us very far.”
Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner (1) and Kentucky guard Keldon Johnson (3) fight for a loose ball in the last minute of Tennessee’s game against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament held at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Saturday, March 16, 2019. (Photo: Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel )
Bone made four straight free throws in the final 10 seconds to cap the comeback victory with an 18-6 run in 2:45.
“Honestly, a lot of these are fun experiences,” Williams said. “We need one more.”