Tennessee beat Georgia 66-61 in front of a sellout crowd of 22,237 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday and claimed a share of the SEC regular season championship.
It's the Vols first SEC title since 2008. Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the SEC before the season but finished with a 23-7 (13-5 SEC) record and tied with Auburn for first place in the conference standings.
Admiral Schofield led Tennessee with 23 points in the win over Georgia, including a jumper off a spin move with less than a minute left to push the lead to three.
Sophomore star Grant Williams was held to single digits in scoring in three of his previous four games, including five points on a season-worst 1-for-8 shooting against Georgia in the previous meeting in Athens. He scored 22 points on Saturday and fouled out with 3:33 left in the game.
"I went out there with the mindset that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something and that I can play well," Williams said.
"The past couple of games, I was down on myself. Yeah, I was helping the team and we had some great wins. I got in the mindset that we were champions and that was all we had to focus on. From then on, it was everyone making great plays. Kyle with the steal, Lamonte’s big three, Admiral’s turn around. I was watching the whole thing with three minutes left. I was jumping around and
celebrating for them, because these are my brothers. I love them,” Williams said.
“It’s always fun to have the last laugh," Admiral Schofield said of the Vols winning a share of the SEC title after being picked to finish 13th of 14 teams.
"Grant and I knew when we were going to SEC media days that those guys had no clue on how much work we put in during the offseason. We had to sit there and listen to it and it was very hard. It was very hard to listen to someone say that we were going to finish second to last, when we put in so much work. We knew that all we had to do was go out and compete and play hard every night and everything else would take care of itself. It’s special because of the bond we built through our work ethic. It’s hard to explain. It’s an amazing feeling."
The offseason work started about a week after the Vols were eliminated from the SEC Tournament last March after a 16-16 season.
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"We came back from the SEC Tournament last year and we knew we had to make some changes in the program," head coach Rick Barnes said.
"We knew the first thing that we were going to have to do was get a group of guys that were totally bought in and had two feet firmly planted in the program. We came back and had the hardest spring we’ve had since I’ve been here. We spent time on the track running, and we did things that I haven’t done in 15 years as a coach, because we were going to find out who really wanted to be a part of this because we feel like this is a great opportunity to be a part of," Barnes said.
"Those 5 a.m. runs, going to the track and having to run in the rain, make a mile under six minutes in the rain, those things build character," Schofield said. "It builds toughness in players. The biggest thing is those experiences add up, when you're in the game and your shot isn't falling or you can't get rebounds on the defensive end, you think back to those moments."
The Vols split the SEC regular season championship with Auburn. The Tigers will get the number one seed in the conference tournament because they beat Tennessee in January and own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Tennessee will be the number two seed in the SEC tourney and will begin play in the quarterfinals on Friday at 7 p.m. against either Mississippi State or LSU.