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Commentary: Another flop for ‘Groundhog Vols’

Thompson-Boling Arena has become one of the loudest, most hostile environments in college basketball, and Saturday was no different.

John Fields and the Vols struggled to stop Georgia early and late in Saturday's loss.

Yet and still, the vast majority of another near-capacity crowd left Tennessee’s riverside arena analyzing another another late letdown, another frustrating finish and another difficult defeat.

Surely at least some of them wondered the same thing.

Why has it oh-so-suddenly become oh-so-possible for oh-so-average teams to win here?

Georgia 69, Tennessee 63.

The Bulldogs (18-8, 7-5 SEC) pulled a crucial game ahead of the Volunteers (16-11, 6-6) in the SEC East standings with just two weeks left in the regular season.

And it probably shouldn’t have happened.

Georgia is good. It is far from great. So were Alabama, Florida, College of Charleston, Southern California and Oakland. Only the Gators are even ranked in the current Associated Press poll.

Nonetheless, all six of those teams have come to Knoxville and beaten the same Vols that beat Big East powers Villanova and Pittsburgh away from Thompson-Boling.

Melvin Goins' steal and slam gave the Vols a lead over Georgia midway through the second half, but they couldn't hold it.

“We’re definitely not representing Tennessee basketball well. We’re not doing a good job executing at home,” said junior guard Scotty Hopson, who overcame a slow start to pour in a career-high 32 points.

“None of us expected this, man,” Hopson added moments later. “None of us expected this at all.”

But when does that become the expectation for this bunch?

After a 4-0 start, the Vols have batted .500 in their own building. Twelve games, six losses.

Thompson-Boling hasn’t drastically changed. The Vols have been fourth nationally in attendance the past four seasons, and they currently edge North Carolina for fourth place this season.

“I don’t know why it keeps happening, but it’s disappointing, because I know our fans really give us a lot out there and want us to win games,” said freshman forward Tobias Harris, who also shrugged off a slow start to give the Vols a solid performance — 18 points and eight rebounds.

“It’s our job to just go out there and make them happy and have them go home with a win,” Harris added.

Perhaps the most perplexing part of UT’s home losses is the way they keep happening. The pattern couldn’t be easier to spot. The Vols start slow — either sort-of slow or sleepy-slow — before roaring back to get within one possession, tie the game or even take the lead with plenty of time left on the clock. But then they stop scoring, start fouling and lose.

Two of Scotty Hopson's career-high 32 points came on this spectacular slam, but the Vols lost at home for a sixth time this season.

A fellow scribe muttered the phrase “Groundhog Vols” in the media center after the game, and who can defiantly disagree with that assessment?

You could practically set their watch by the pattern at this point.

UT avoided that fate against Vanderbilt, storming back from a 17-point deficit and holding on for a 67-64 win.

But the home losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia followed the formula to a Power T.

The Vols have done the same thing on the road, but it’s entirely different when you consistently do them in your own building.

A 17-0 run gave Georgia a 22-7 lead midway through Saturday’s first half, but the Vols quickly cut the deficit to single-digits and trailed just 33-25 at the break. The Bulldogs bumped their advantage back to 10 early in the second half, but senior point guard Melvin Goins’ steal and slam capped the spurt that gave UT a 45-43 lead with 11 minutes, 39 seconds left in the game.

Goins was given a technical for hanging on the rim, and Georgia star Trey Thompsons hit both free throws to re-tie the score, but Thompson-Boling was loud and hostile and clearly affecting the Bulldogs. And there were nearly 12 minutes left in the game.

Surely the Vols would pull away this time, right?

Jeremy Price punctuated Georgia's win at Tennessee with this slam in the final seconds.

Wrong.

Harris hit a 3-point play to give UT a 48-45 lead with 9:27 left, and the freshman vividly remembers how vivacious the Vols were in the huddle when Georgia coach Mark Fox called timeout 14 seconds later.

“We came to the bench and said, ‘Let’s take them out,’” Harris said.

But that didn’t happen.

Why?

“I have no clue. I would love to know,” Harris said. “They got some easy calls, but you can’t really do nothing about that. As a team, we have to learn how to close out games. That’s what’s been hurting us the whole season.

“We’ve just got to really execute and do better down the stretch of games.”

It took the Vols nearly three minutes to score after Harris’s and-1, and Georgia took back the lead mostly from the free-throw line.

UT trailed 49-48 with 6:59 left, 54-52 with 5:13 left and 60-57 with 1:51 left.

But the Bulldogs — like Thompson-Boling’s five other victorious visitors this season — always had an answer.

And it’s not like Georgia has been a strong closing team. The Bulldogs have blown big leads all season, but it didn’t cost them Saturday.

“Georgia started the game like they were playing for their NCAA Tournament lives,” Vols coach Bruce Pearl said. “We played like we were already in. You can’t spot a good team that kind of lead in a game of that magnitude.

“I’ve got a great tolerance for aggressiveness. I don’t for not having that sense of urgency and not competing, not realizing you were in a fight until you’re already getting the crap kicked out of you.”

Stronger starts would help.

But so would stronger finishes.

Especially when you have more than 20,000 in the crowd pushing you in a close game with plenty of time on the clock.

“When are we going to get over this hump, man?” UT senior guard Josh Bone tweeted after Saturday’s loss.

Good question.

But perhaps the better question is will the Vols get over this hump?

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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