ST. LOUIS — Admiral Schofield insists Tennessee’s play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament isn’t about validating the school’s remarkable and surprising regular season.
Rather, trying to win the Volunteers’ first tournament championship in almost 40 years is always where the Tennessee junior expected to be — even when the Rocky Top faithful were disappointed by a preseason pick of 13th in the SEC.
Tennessee will have that chance at its first conference tournament title since 1979, courtesy of an 84-66 win over Arkansas in the semifinals on Saturday. The No. 13 Volunteers (25-7) showed off for all the SEC to see against the sixth-seeded Razorbacks, putting on a shooting exhibition in the first half and setting up a third meeting this season with Kentucky in Sunday’s championship game.
“We just have a standard we’re trying to play toward,” Schofield said. “The biggest thing is we try to go out to every game with that mindset, like we’re trying to perfect our standard. We haven’t done that yet, so we’re still a hungry team. We still want more.”
Tennessee shared the SEC’s regular-season title with No. 16 Auburn, doing so after being picked to finish next to last in the league during the preseason. The Volunteers won their opening tournament game over Mississippi State, and they continued their recent hot streak against sixth-seeded Arkansas (23-11) — winning their sixth straight and for the 13th time in their last 15 games.
Jordan Bone set the tone for Tennessee’s first-half shooting exhibition and finished with 19 points. The sophomore scored 17 of his points in the first half, during which the Volunteers hit 11 of their first 12 shots and 19 of 25 (76 percent) overall while building a 48-29 halftime lead.
Schofield added 16 points for Tennessee, while Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander and James Daniel III finished with 12 points apiece.
But it was Bone who left the weary Razorbacks search for answers in the first half, hitting 7 of 7 from the field and all of his 3-point attempts. He finished 8 of 11 from the field and his three 3-pointers were a part of an overall 11-of-17 shooting effort from behind the arc for the Volunteers.
“First half, we arguably played the best basketball we have all year,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “Jordan Bone was terrific, and the team feeds off him when he’s out there playing with the speed and quickness that he has.”
Daryl Macon scored 19 points to lead the sixth-seeded Razorbacks, who had won eight of their previous 10 games. Jaylen Barford added 14, and Anton Beard and Darious Hall had 11 each in the loss.
Arkansas closed to within nine points early in the second half, but it was unable to climb all the way back from Tennessee’s first-half barrage.
The game was the third in three days for the Razorbacks, who defeated No. 3 seed Florida on Friday night and left the Scottrade Center less than 15 hours before Saturday’s tip. Because they were one of the top four seeds, the Volunteers were playing only their second game of the tournament. “I thought the toll of three days might have caught up with us,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks defeated Tennessee 95-93 in overtime on Dec. 30 in Fayetteville, a game in which Macon and Barford combined to score 61 points. The duo had 33 points on Saturday on a combined 9-of-18 shooting, but the rest of Arkansas’ players shot only 35.5 percent (11 of 31) in the loss.
Tennessee: The Volunteers won their last SEC Tournament championship in 1979 when they defeated Kentucky in the title game. The school has reached the championship game 10 times, tied for the third-most appearances in the conference, and it lost to Mississippi State in its most recent title game in 2009.
Arkansas awaits its NCAA Tournament opponent.
The Volunteers face Kentucky on Sunday.