TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — With the clock ticking down on Tennessee’s first men’s SEC Tournament title in 43 years, freshman Kennedy Chandler dribbled near midcourt with his left hand and popped the chest of his jersey with his right.
Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi angled for the sideline, where they tried to lure coach Rick Barnes into Sunday’s celebration.
“This time of year is about players,” said Barnes, who wound up in the mix anyway after the ninth-ranked Volunteers beat Texas A&M 65-50, cut down the nets and the players approached him again to place a portion around his neck.
“I just think it’s their moment. It’s their time to get the trophy. It’s their time to cut down the nets,” Barnes added. “They came to Tennessee to help us make it a special place. They’ve done that. It’s truly their time.”
A short time later, James walked out of Amalie Arena carrying the tournament trophy.
“Taking it back to the crib,” the 6-foot-6 junior guard said.
Tennessee fans have waiting since 1979.
“They beat us from start to finish,” Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams said. “We had no answers for their tactical decisions, nor their talent.”
Vescovi scored 17 points, James had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and the Vols (26-7) rattled off the first 14 points of the afternoon to win for the 12th time in 13 games since a one-point loss at Texas in late January.
Auburn and Kentucky entered the SEC Tournament ranked in the top five and Arkansas was as hot as any team in the country down the stretch, but Tennessee has emerged as the top team in the league after beating each of those rivals in the past two weeks.
Chandler, the tournament MVP, had 14 points and seven assists for Tennessee, which recorded assists on 19 of 22 baskets, including the first 10 the Vols made after halftime.
Playing its fourth game in four days, Texas A&M (23-12) started slowly and never recovered.
The Aggies missed their first eight shots — seven of them 3-point attempts — while Tennessee began the game with Chandler making a 3-pointer, James delivering a three-point play and then hitting a shot from behind the arc for a quick 9-0 lead.
It was 14-0 before Henry Coleman finally scored for Texas A&M, which never trimmed its deficit to fewer than five the rest of the way. The Aggies missed all nine of their 3-point attempts in the opening half while shooting 27% overall (6 of 22) from the field.
Tennessee also was outstanding defending the 3-point line in Saturday’s 69-62 semifinal victory over fifth-ranked Kentucky, which finished 2 of 20 from beyond the arc. Since yielding 80 points in a 10-point victory over Texas A&M in Knoxville on Feb. 1, the Vols have held 10 of 12 SEC opponents under 65.
The closest Texas A&M got after the slow start was five, 34-29, on Tyrece Radford’s 3-pointer early in the second half. Chandler answered with a 3 and Vescovi followed with a another to finish a 9-0 burst that rebuilt the lead to 14.
Chandler, falling out of bounds, shoveled a nifty underhand pass to James in the corner, where the Tennessee guard sank a 3-pointer that gave the Vols, who led by as many as 18, their biggest lead of the day.
Radford led Texas A&M, which beat Florida, fourth-ranked Auburn and No. 15 Arkansas to reach its first SEC Tournament final, with 13 points. Henry Coleman finished with 12 points and seven rebounds for the Aggies, who likely played their way into the NCAA Tournament with three wins in Tampa.
The Vols were in the final for the third time in five years after losing to Kentucky in 2018 and Auburn in 2019. This time, they finished it off.
“Very proud of our team,” Barnes said. “They have worked hard. They deserve what they’ve been able to achieve here.”
Texas A&M: The Aggies finished 4 of 19 from behind the 3-point line. Leading scorer Quenton Jackson never got on track, finishing with nine points on 3-of-9 shooting.
Tennessee: The Volunteers won the SEC Tournament for the fifth time overall. They also won it in 1936, 1941, 1943 and 1979.
Texas A&M: With three wins in the SEC Tournament, the Aggies likely ensured their season wouldn’t end without a NCAA appearance.
Tennessee: NCAA Tournament.
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