Dan Fleser: Missed Shots Doom Vols Again In Sweet Sixteen

  • Friday, March 24, 2023
  • Dan Fleser
There they were again, not on cue but not necessarily unexpected either.

Missed shots have assumed a life and a sinister identity of their own during Tennessee’s basketball season. They have gathered intermittently like a group of conspirators throughout the past four-plus months. As much as the Vols tried to chase them away with so many great victories, they always were lurking, right to the bitter end.

It all concluded late Thursday night with a 62-55 loss to Florida Atlantic in the East Region semifinals in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The fourth-seeded Vols missed too many shots before halftime, when their defense helped create a wonderful opportunity in the form of nine Florida Atlantic turnovers. Then they couldn’t make enough shots after the Owls settled down in the second half and started scoring to their usual standard.

All told, Tennessee shot 33.3 percent from the floor. The Vols were worse from long range, hitting just 26 percent of their 3-pointers (6 for 23). Five seniors combined to shoot 14 for 50 from the floor. Forward Olivier Nkamhoua, who was brilliant in scoring 27 points and shooting 10-for-13 from the floor in last Saturday’s second-round victory over Duke, was 2-for-9 against Florida Atlantic and had six points. Jonas Aidoo and Tyreke Key were the only reserves who scored. Julian Phillips, who some have projected to be a first-round NBA Draft pick, had no points in 12 playing minutes off the bench.

“In the first half they had some shots, we dodged that,” UT coach Rick Barnes said. “But when they started scoring, our offense wasn’t very good.”

Florida Atlantic’s role in the Vols’ demise shouldn’t be minimized. The ninth-seeded Owls previewed as a dangerous opponent, based on their 30-plus victories and their per-game scoring average of 78.4 points. But their greatest asset arguably turned out to be the ability to stand up to Tennessee with a smaller lineup

The Vols tried to attack the basket from the outset but couldn’t get enough done around the rim. The Owl were better at that crucial point of attack, thanks primarily to dribble drives. They had the edge in points scored from close range, 26-22.

Florida Atlantic’s two leading scorers – Johnell Davis and Nick Boyd – also were a tough matchup as rebounders. For starters, they were coming from the perimeter and harder to target for box outs. Yet they also were big enough at 6-foot-4 and 6-3 respectively to not be overwhelmed once they arrived at the gathering place. Together, they had five of FAU’s 12 offensive rebounds.

“We were playing with great physicality,” Owls coach Dusty May said.

FAU’s 40-36 edge in rebounding and its 14-12 advantage in second-chance points likely took a greater toll on the Vols’ psyche than it did statistically. They’re used to being the more physical team. It’s been their armor and shield against offensive struggles.

Nkamhoua told reporters afterward: “The offensive rebounds they had, they killed us.”

James said that rebounding is all about willpower and added, “They just wanted it more.”

It might have seemed that way but it wasn’t. At some point, wanting to win comes down to making more shots. The misses betray your best intentions. They conspired against the Vols one last time and had the final say on a season.

* * *

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.
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