KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee won a share of the Southeastern Conference title and then showed off the chip it has worn on its shoulder all season.
“Not bad for a team picked 13th,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said to a raucous sellout crowd Saturday as the 16th-ranked Volunteers prepared to cut down the nets after their 66-61 victory over Georgia.
The SEC’s preseason media poll had Tennessee finishing 13th out of 14 teams in the conference. Tennessee (23-7, 13-5 SEC) instead shares the league championship with No. 14 Auburn, which was picked to finish ninth.
Admiral Schofield scored 23 points as the Vols came from behind and closed the game on a 9-0 run. The Vols said those gloomy preseason forecasts made this championship particularly sweet.
“It’s always fun to have the last laugh,” Schofield said.
Because Auburn won 94-84 at Tennessee on Jan. 2 in their lone regular-season matchup, the Tigers (25-6, 13-5) get the No. 1 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament that starts Wednesday in St. Louis.
Tennessee still was in a jubilant mood after grabbing a piece of its first league title since 2008 and tossed cups of water on Barnes as he entered the locker room after the game.
Vols forward Grant Williams said Tennessee always knew it could win a league title, even when nobody else considered it a realistic possibility.
“We didn’t really pay attention to any of those (preseason) rankings,” Williams said. “We might have used it now and again for motivation, but throughout the year we knew it was a different type of environment, a different team that we were playing with.”
The Vols have won four straight and 11 of their last 13. Tennessee’s latest victory ended Georgia’s five-game winning streak in this series.
It didn’t come easily.
After trailing by as many as 11, Tennessee pulled ahead for good at 62-61 when Jordan Bowden sank two free throws with 1:01 left.
Georgia’s Tyree Crump tried passing in the paint to SEC scoring leader Yante Maten on the Bulldogs’ next possession, but Tennessee’s Kyle Alexander stole it. Schofield then hit a jumper with 18 seconds left to make it 64-61.
William Jackson II missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds. Schofield made two free throws with 0.4 seconds left to close the scoring.
“That was a great college basketball game,” Barnes said. “It’s sad that somebody had to lose. I love the way our guys fought there at the end and got it done.”
Williams scored 22 points for Tennessee, which went on its 9-0 run after he fouled out. Maten scored 18, Rayshaun Hammonds had 12 and Jackson had 10 for Georgia (16-14, 7-11).
Maten shot 1 of 9 and had just six points in the second half. Georgia coach Mark Fox noted the SEC player of the year candidate wasn’t as effective after taking a hit to the jaw area in the second half.
“He’s with the doctor now, so I think it probably obviously had some impact,” Fox said, “but I don’t want to take anything away from Tennessee’s team.”
Georgia: The Bulldogs grabbed a double-digit lead by shooting 7 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half, but they went just 1 of 6 from beyond the arc in the second half. Georgia entered the night having made just 31.8 percent of its 3-pointers to rank 13th in the SEC.
Tennessee: Lamonte’ Turner was scoreless for the first 29 1/2 minutes but made three huge shots down the stretch. Turner’s first 3-pointer tied the game at 49-all. His second one put Tennessee ahead with 6:23 left for the Vols’ first lead since a 5-0 run to open the game. His third and final 3-pointer started the 9-0 spurt that closed the game.
The sellout crowd was unhappy with the officiating all night. A water bottle was even tossed onto the court after Williams fouled out with 3:33 left, causing Barnes to grab a microphone and remind the crowd to avoid that type of behavior.
NFL offensive rookie of the year and former Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints was in the crowd and drew a standing ovation when he was introduced during a first-half timeout.
Tennessee’s late-season surge should enable the Vols to move into the top 15.
Georgia: The Bulldogs are the 12th seed in the SEC Tournament that starts Wednesday in St. Louis.
Tennessee: The Vols are the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament and won’t play until Friday’s quarterfinals. They will face either No. 7 seed Mississippi State or No. 10 seed LSU.