By Jimmy Hyams
Rick Barnes didn’t look, act or talk like a coach who had just lost two games in a row on miraculous buzzer-beating 3-point shots.
Tennessee’s coach was disappointed in the gut-wrenching 86-85 home loss Saturday to Missouri, make no mistake.
But his mind was on two other matters.
One, Barnes was encouraged by the way his team clawed back from a 17-point second half deficit to take a six-point lead over a red-hot Missouri team.
“I was really proud of the fight the guys showed in the second half,’’ Barnes said.
Secondly, he was despondent for his senior guard Santi Vescovi, who had a chance to ice the game for the Vols with 4.2 seconds left but missed his first free throw attempt, then his second, although it would have been nullified by a lane violation by Tobe Awaka.
“I hate it for Santi,’’ said Barnes. “That’s where my mind is right now. It’s heart-breaking for him. I know how he feels.
“That’s two games in a row he’s had a chance to put it on ice.’’
Instead, Vescovi missed the two free throws against Missouri after missing the front end of a one-and-one at Vanderbilt before Vandy hit a 3 at the buzzer to pull out a 66-65 victory Wednesday.
It’s the first time in 59 outings Tennessee has lost back-to-back games.
And it’s the first time Vescovi had not come through at the foul line two games in a row.
Vescovi is a career 80 percent free-throw shooter. He has been even better in the final minutes of games. There’s no one Barnes would rather have at the line in the clutch than Vescovi. The coach even designs in-bounds plays to get the ball in Vescovi;’s hands in late foul shooting situations.
That’s probably why Barnes wasn’t as upset about losing to Missouri as he was the way it went down.
“Santi has won a lot of games for us,’’ Barnes said.
Vescovi almost helped Tennessee (19-6, 8-4 SEC) nip Missouri in what might have the greatest UT comeback in the Barnes Era.
Playing without Josiah-Jordan James (ankle) for the game and Julian Phillips (hip flexor) for the second half, Tennessee appeared to have little hope rallying from a 17-point hole.
But UT chipped away and Vescovi nailed a 3 with 7:40 left in the game to put UT ahead 67-64, its first lead since early in the first half. It helped the Vols rally from a 49-32 deficit early in the second half.
Vescovi hit another 3 with 2:31 left for an 81-77 lead.
He converted two free throws with 7.1 seconds left for an 85-82 lead.
After Missouri split two free throws with 4.2 seconds left, Vescovi (who scored 16 points) was fouled with 4.2 seconds left.
A Tennessee sellout crowd that had been whipped into a frenzy by the frantic rally and DJ-cheerleader-noisemaker Sterling Henton, was ready to erupt with Vescovi going to the line to seal the deal.
Instead, two misses and a stunning running 30-footer by Deandre Gholston sent the shocked fans home wondering what had happened.
The key to Tennessee’s rally was Tyreke Key, who scored a season high 23 points (21 in the second half). With his teammates struggling to find the basket, Key swished 5 of 9 3-pointers and almost single-handedly surged the Vols back into the game.
UT stretched the lead to 76-70 on two Zakai Ziegler free throws with 4:32 left.Is back-to-back 3s cut Missouri’s 10-point lead to 64-60 with 9:26 left.
Tennessee maintained the lead until Gholston’s acrobatic shot allowed Missouri, a 13-point underdog, to score a huge upset.
The Tigers (19-6, 7-5) shot at a blistering pace from the get go. They led 44-32 at halftime, thanks to drilling eight of 16 from 3-point range., which included a banked in 3 and three airballs.
Missouri finished the game hitting 14 of 26 3s against the best 3-point defense in the nation.
Vanderbilt made 10 of 25, meaning UT allowed 24 3s in two games after allowing 4.9 per game through 23 games and 22.8% from long range.
Missouri also shot 52.6% from the field.
Tennessee shot well enough to win: 45.3% from the field (24 of 53) and 42.9% from beyond the arc (12 of 28).
But for one of the few times this season, the defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
And for one of the few times in his career, Vescovi didn’t come through at the foul line.