WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s a tough night when the basketball team can’t outscore the football team.
The gridiron Tennessee Volunteers averaged 36.2 points this season. The hoops version lost 37-36 to No. 20 Georgetown on Friday night, an offensive display of offensive basketball that made the SEC/Big East Challenge look like more like the games they used to play with peach baskets.
“We just couldn’t come up with shots,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
No one’s going to argue with you there, Coach.
It was Tennessee’s second-lowest scoring total since the shot clock went into effect in the 1985-86 season, better only than in a 43-35 loss to Auburn in 1997. It was Georgetown’s worst effort of the shot clock era, its lowest total since a 37-36 win over Southern Methodist in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1985.
It was so bad even the free throws weren’t falling. The teams combined to make just 7 of 20. The field-goal shooting was just as horrid, with the Vols hitting 33 percent and the Hoyas 36 percent. Georgetown’s Mikael Hopkins had an especially miserable time, missing three easy lay-ins and four free throws in the first 20 minutes.
Georgetown coach John Thompson III kept saying over and over that he’d never been a part of a game like it. Then he finally thought of one.
“I think I was 8,” Thompson said. “Playing with St. Anthony’s. The game ended 13-11.”
“I had 10,” he added with a chuckle and sly glance at one of his players. “And we won that game, too.”
It’s easier to laugh about it when you win. Martin, by contrast, didn’t have the same shake-your-head humor. He blamed his team’s struggles on Georgetown’s zone defense and had no transcendent thoughts about the evening’s high degree of ugliness.
“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Martin said. “At the end of the day you’re trying to get out with a W. I don’t need anything to be pretty.”
No player scored in double figures for either team. It was hard to believe it was the same Georgetown (5-1) that had a great stretch last week to move into the Top 25, beating then-No. 11 UCLA and losing in overtime to top-ranked Indiana on back-to-back nights. Tennessee (4-2) was riding a two-game winning streak after a mid-November loss to Oklahoma State.
“We were getting easy shots that we were missing,” Thompson said. “We were getting the ball right at the rim, and the ball just wasn’t going in.”
No one scored in the final four minutes. The winning basket — though no one could have imagined it at the time — was Markel Starks’ jumper with 4:10 to play.
Appropriately enough, the game had a Keystone Cops ending. Georgetown’s Otto Porter took his eyes off a simple pass near midcourt to give the Vols a final possession and chance to win. The result: a 3-point air ball by Tennessee’s Skylar McBee and a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Jordan McRae that clanged off the rim.
“You’re not going to shoot well every night,” said McBee, who was 2 for 7 from 3-point range. “But our defense gives us a chance to be there at the end of the game, and I take a lot of the responsibility for this. I owe it to my team to take shots and that’s what I have to do. So the responsibility of that goes on me tonight.”
The Vols started 4 for 22 from the field and late in the first half had nearly as many fouls (10) as points (11). The half ended with McRae putting up with air ball on a baseline runner. The rebound went to teammate Trae Golden, who hit a lucky bank shot at the buzzer to complete a half-ending 7-0 run and give the Vols an 18-16 lead.
Georgetown, meanwhile, went without a field goal for the last 10:13 of the half.
The Hoyas got some momentum early in the second half, using their defense to spur a 15-5 run capped by a nice baseline move by Starks, making the score 31-23 with 12 minutes to play.
Then the Vols found a rhythm for the only time in the game, converting back-to-back transition baskets and taking the lead when McBee’s 3-pointer ended a 9-0 run.
From there it was back-and-forth, with the team trading fouls, turnovers and the occasional basket.
But, as Martin pointed out, at least it was close.
“We felt like it would be a grimy type of game because we knew they would play the zone. But, for us, we wanted to help get that W,” Martin said. “However you get the W is fine; we move on to the next game. We came up short.”