Vols looking to clean up turnovers ahead of final stretch of regular season

Cory Sanning

It's been a tough stretch for Rick Barnes and Tennessee basketball as of late.

Dating back to Feb. 4, the Vols have alternated wins and losses and suffered perhaps their most devastating conference defeat in Auburn on Saturday. 

UT led by 17 with just over 14 minutes remaining in the second half, but 14 turnovers during the final period ultimately brought the Tigers all the way back for a seven-point win at home.

What could have been Tennessee's signature win of the season and what was the best individual performance of Jordan Bowden's career was quickly spoiled by self-inflicted wounds that seem to have found a reoccurring rhythm.

"On the offensive end you still have to make shots, you have to execute," Barnes said. "You cannot turn the ball over and if you turn the ball over it's going to fuel that momentum."

The same issues that have plagued Tennessee all season manifested themselves once again, only this time the consequences could prove disastrous to the Vols' NCAA Tournament chances.

UT has just four games remaining on its regular season schedule, one of those matchups against Kentucky in Lexington and a rematch against Auburn on March 7.

The Razorbacks have not won a matchup against the Vols in the two programs' previous three meetings, but this is quite a different Tennessee squad than Arkansas faced a year ago, or even weeks ago.

Ultimately, Barnes feels that UT's problems have fallen on poor decision-making.

"There's a lot of things that can go into it, but it goes back to decisions," Barnes said."Whether it's players decisions or referee's decisions, there's a lot of things that go into turnovers."

When Tennessee started out the season, Barnes envisioned having Lamonte Turner and a fully healthy Josiah-Jordan James to handle the ball at this point.

The Vols have neither of those options to turn to, and while the discovery of Santiago Vescovi has proven dividends, UT has been unable to escape the ghosts of past defeats.

Those losses are beginning to pile up, and each one proves to be an even thicker thorn in the side of Tennessee's postseason chances.

"I can sit here and go through the whole year and tell you it's pretty amazing that we have been able to put ourselves in some of these games from the beginning," Barnes said. "When you're there and when you can't finish it, yeah it's tough and frustrating."

Those frustrations boiled over on Saturday, with Tennessee surrendering its largest lead of the season in a gut-wrenching defeat.

It wasn't the first time that the Vols were unable to hold on to a late lead. Just weeks ago, UT looked to have an easy win over Texas A&M at home in hand. 

Instead, Tennessee succumbed to a late collapse that would become part of a three-game losing streak, its third stretch of two or more consecutive losses this year. 

The Vols may not be the team that they were at this point a year ago, but they've proven that on any given night, they can compete with the country's elite. 

Only time will tell if the toughness that comes along with losing will thicken UT's skin to close the regular season. 

"Some of the ones that we make you just can't make," Barnes said. "And it gets down to where you have to have tough, hard-nosed guard play this time of year, or you're going to struggle."

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