KNOXVILLE – Holding a 56-52 edge with 37 seconds remaining, Tennessee looked well on its way to extending its five-game winning streak and moving to 2-0 in conference play.
But the Vols (10-5, 1-1 SEC) couldn’t finish it off.
Texas A&M (11-4, 2-0 SEC) point guard Alex Caruso hit a tough lay-up with 31 seconds left to cut the lead down to two. After an offensive foul by UT guard Jordan McRae, Caruso got another chance to tie it at the free-throw line, but missed both.
Jeronne Maymon was fouled while grabbing the rebound and had a chance to give UT a three-or-four point lead with 17 seconds left. But he also missed a pair of free throws and that was when A&M went for the dagger.
Forward Antwan Space, who entered the game with just two made 3s on the season, pulled up and drilled a game-winning 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds remaining. Jordan McRae’s last-ditch effort fell short and the Aggies pulled off the 57-56 stunner.
"I was shocked," said Tennessee senior guard Antonio Barton, who finished the game with 12 points. "I'd never had that happen to me ever in my life. Just seeing it go into the net didn't seem real."
"They made a big shot down the stretch to win the ball game – tough shot," added UT coach Cuonzo Martin. "Big shot. I thought our guys competed, just didn't do a good job in the second half on both ends of the floor. We got stagnant offensively and didn't get the stops we needed defensively. We came up short."
It wasn't just the closing seconds that made the loss sting for Tennessee. It was an overall collapse against what appeared to be an inferior squad on the Vols' home court.
Tennessee simply let this one get away.
The Vols held a 32-18 advantage at halftime and didn't allow a single field goal by A&M in the final 9:34 of the first half. And they did it without much early help from stars McRae and Jarnell Stokes, who played a combined 13 minutes in the first half due to early foul trouble. With a decisive edge and the two stars set to return to regular action in the final 20 minutes, it looked like UT would have little problem getting the win.
The second half was a different story, however. McRae and Stokes never got in the flow of the game after their early foul trouble. A&M keyed in on them and made the other Vols step up.
"I thought A&M did a good job taking those guys out of the game and force other guys to make plays," Martin said. "I think in their case, just not getting a rhythm and flow probably due to the first half."
Tennessee shot just 40 percent from the field in the second half and committed nine turnovers. Texas A&M heated up – shooting 53.8 percent in the final 20 minutes with guard Jamal Jones contributing 20 points on 7 of 12 shots (4 of 7 from 3-point range).
"Going from the first to the second half we were a little bit too happy," said Barton. "We got settled and they took a shot and then they started making shots everywhere. We tried to fight at the end but it was too late."
But even with the second-half collapse unfolding, UT still had a good chance to wrap up what would've been somewhat of an ugly win in the final minutes. Maymon's missed free throws certainly hurt UT's cause.
"It's very hard, very upsetting," Maymon said. "But I have to get back in they gym and work on it."
However, UT had plenty of other opportunities to seal the win down the stretch. This one will hurt Tennessee come March, but there's still a lot of basketball to be played. A team that was 8-7 (0-3 SEC) at one point last season before making it to the brink of the NCAA tournament understands that a January setback won't define a season.
The Vols can't have too many of these in SEC play, however. An up-and-down non-conference run magnifies every game from here on out.
"It's one of the harder ones to get over but you can't dwell on it," Maymon added. "We've got Auburn coming in here (Wednesday night) and i'm pretty sure they are going to watch film and think they can do the same thing. We have to come out here, re-focus and get ready for it."
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga