I don't know if we're the best team in the country," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl told his team before Saturday night's one-vs.-two battle royale with Memphis at FedExForum. "But I know we're 40 minutes away from being the number-one team in the country."
After 40 minutes of the most emotionally charged basketball Memphis has seen in years (if ever), the University of Tennessee -- men -- has the number-one basketball team in the country. In beating the Tigers, 66-62, the Vols will elevate to the top of the AP poll for the first time in the program's history, and join the Lady Vols as the only school to occupy the top spot this season in both the men's and women's poll.
"They scrapped, they battled, they deserved to win," said Tiger coach John Calipari after the game. "You guys said we needed to lose one. Well, now we have."
Now 26-1, the Tigers had a pair of lengthy streaks die at the hands of their cross-state rivals. Their 26-game winning streak was the longest in school history, and their 47-game winning streak at FedExForum was the longest home streak Memphis had ever witnessed, and the longest such active run in the country.
Tennessee erased a one-point halftime deficit and led by seven with just over 11 minutes to play before the Tigers rallied behind their twin stars -- freshman Derrick Rose and junior Chris Douglas-Roberts -- to take a 61-58 lead with 2:19 to play.
The Volunteers made the money shots, though, Tyler Smith draining a short field goal amid a crowd of Tigers with 26 seconds left to give UT the lead for good. (Before Smith's game-winner, the Tigers' Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey had tied each other up on an offensive rebound, the traveling call giving Tennessee possession, down a point.)
As narrow as the defeat was, Memphis finally let its Achilles heel decide a game. They missed nine of 17 free throws, including the front end of three one-and-ones (potentially six points lost). Senior Andre Allen missed a pair with the Tigers down one with just over four minutes to play. With eight seconds left, Tennessees J.P. Prince -- a Memphian -- calmly drained two free throws to put UT up 64-61 and essentially decide the contest.
The loss will drop the Tigers anywhere from one to four spots in the rankings (they remain the only one-loss team in the country).
Among Calipari's priorities over the remaining two weeks of the regular season will be finding Dorsey's A-game. The senior center had his third straight game with fewer than 10 rebounds, scored but one point, and was outplayed by UT center Wayne Chism (13 points, 7 rebounds). Dorsey picked up two fouls in three seconds midway through the second half, forcing him to the Tiger bench for a large portion of crunch time.
On the positive side of things, the precocious Rose showed signs that the NCAA tournament is a stage he'll embrace. He scored 23 points, dished out five assists, and had four steals under the brightest lights of what will almost surely be a one-year college career. A merely average game from Douglas-Roberts (14 points on 5-of-12 shooting) kept Tennessee within shooting distance, which proved to be all they needed.
"We thought we had them at the end," said Calipari. "They made shots and we didn't. They outscrapped us on the backboard [winning the rebound battle, 50-34]. We held them to 37-percent shooting, and they won. It was one or two plays. We needed one or two down the stretch, and we didn't have it. We have to accept the fact that we got outscrapped, and that's unusual for our team."
The Tigers return to Conference USA play Wednesday night when they host Tulsa. A second straight undefeated league record remains within reach.