Fans welcome Vols after SEC Championship
Knoxville native Joe Fowler didn’t think Tennessee men’s basketball would win an SEC tournament championship in his lifetime. Even as he waited with the crowd outside Stokely Residence Hall to greet the team as they returned to campus on Sunday evening, the 39-year-old still couldn’t believe the Vols were coming home as champions.
“I was just reliving all the bad memories from the past, so it was almost surreal,” Fowler said. “It took me a long time to process – I was sitting there saying, this is real. I think it’s just a tribute to how this whole team has come together and really united with each other.”
Tennessee defeated Texas A&M 65-50 on Sunday in Tampa, Fla., to claim the program’s first conference tournament title since 1979. The Vols were seeded third in the NCAA Tournament South Region and will face 14th-seeded Longwood. , in the first round on Thursday. (2:45 p.m.) in Indianapolis.
NCAA TOURNAMENT:Here’s why Tennessee basketball can — and can’t — reach the 2022 Final Four
LADY FLIGHTS:Tennessee Lady Vols a No. 4 NCAA Tournament seed, faces No. 13 Buffalo in Knoxville
Fowler wore a No. 32 jersey over his Tennessee sweatshirt, the back covered in faded signatures. He bought the shirt on sale after former Vols guard CJ Watson, who wore the number, graduated in 2006. Duke Crews took over as No. 32 and he was Fowler’s favorite player .
During his senior year at Tennessee, Fowler had nearly everyone on the 2007-08 squad sign the jersey at a throwback party much like the one on Sunday after the No. 2 Vols beat the No. 1 Memphis.
RICK BARNES:‘I owe him my life’: Rick Barnes didn’t want to be the center of Tennessee’s SEC championship. This is why he was
“Tonight was just as great as I remembered at the time,” Fowler said. “That fanbase shows, and there’s something about this team this year that’s a bit like that team (in 2007-08) that captivates you. There’s something about them that draws everyone in.”
When the team bus pulled up around 8:30 p.m., an orange-clad crowd greeted the conference champions with a roaring chant, “It’s great to be a Tennessee Vol!” Giant cutouts of players on long sticks floated above the swarm.
UT starter Josiah-Jordan James entered the crowd of fans with a big loudspeaker blasting Queen’s We Are The Champions, but it was Rocky Top that turned into a catchy chorus as even the players were singing at the top of their voices.
Andrew Shafer, a Tennessee alum who now works for the university in fundraising, brought four of his five children to celebrate the historic championship. The children carried a sheet of Thefts stickers, a paper photo frame and an orange and white miniature basketball that the players had to autograph. Shafer said their favorite player is first-year guard Zakai Zeigler.
“My wife and I both went to UT, so we all had to come support them,” Shafer said. “It’s amazing to share this with them, and my wife and I were like, who knows when this will happen again?”