ATLANTA — Brian Williams picked a good time to return. He chose an even better time to hit a huge shot.
After receiving a cut under his eye, the Tennessee center entered with less than a minute left and hit a layup that lifted the Volunteers to a 74-68 victory over Arkansas in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Thursday at the Georgia Dome.
“It shouldn’t have even come down to that point but it did,” Williams said. “I’m just glad we got the victory.”
The basket came after Tennessee (19-13) blew a 16-point lead but the Volunteers scored the game’s last six points to advance to the quarterfinals. The Volunteers, the fifth-seed out of the East, will play SEC champion Florida at 6:30 p.m. on Friday.
Williams took a pass from Tobias Harris and made the basket with 54.8 seconds left to give Tennessee a two-point lead. Williams had just returned after suffering a blow to the face while going up for a rebound. The collision left him with a nasty gash under his right eye.
“I got a Mike Tyson punch [like] in ‘The Hangover’” Williams said. “I guess that is the game of basketball nowadays. ... He punched me smooth in my eye. I think my eye touched my brain.”
After Williams’ go-ahead layup, Harris forced a turnover by knocking the ball away from LSU’s Julysses Nobles. The ball ended up in the hands of Tennessee’s Melvin Goins, who passed it back to Harris. He drew a foul and hit two insurance free throws with 33 seconds remaining.
That sequence halted what would have been a monumental collapse for the Volunteers, who sliced and diced their way through Arkansas’ defense for most of the game.
Tennessee built a 68-52 lead with 7:06 left in the second half. But Arkansas (18-13), the fourth seed out of the West, finally slowed down Tennessee and scored 16 straight points. Nobles and Clarke nailed consecutive 3-pointers and combined for 12 points during the run. Clarke’s two free throws tied the game with 2:08 remaining.
“It is frustrating because we got all the way back into it, and had a chance to do some things and take the lead on a couple possessions,” Clarke said. “[We] just didn’t do it.”
Harris scored 16 of his game-high 20 points in the first half. Goins, who has been ill for the last two days, added 12. Williams finished with nine points and eight rebounds.
For Arkansas, Clarke had 18 points and Delvon Johnson finished with 15.
The loss came hours after CBSSports.com posted a picture showing Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey with two high school prospects. The picture was taken in December and reveals Pelphrey possibly violated an NCAA rule because both players are juniors. Coaches can’t have off-campus contact with recruits before July 1, heading into their senior year.
Arkansas has had three straight losing seasons in the SEC and there was already speculation — before Thursday’s news — that the Razorbacks were thinking about a coaching change.
“We’re certainly very sensitive to those things and take all that stuff very, very seriously,” Pelphrey said of the possible recruiting violations. “It will be looked into with regards to our compliance people, and if there is something there, we’ll certainly cooperate and be forthcoming.”
• Ole Miss 66, South Carolina 55: Ole Miss scored 17 straight points early in the first half, and held on from there to defeat South Carolina.
The Rebels (20-12), the No. 3 seed out of the Western division, are the sixth SEC team to reach 20 wins this season. They did so by jumping out to a 17-5 lead six minutes into the game and then weathering several South Carolina rallies.
"I thought we were more efficient versus their pressure down the stretch," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "I thought we were tentative early. ... I thought that the latter part of the half when the lead got stretched again, we were much more efficient."
The Gamecocks (14-16), the East’s sixth seed, cut the deficit to four points at halftime. But they let Ole Miss burst out of the gate again and a Chris Warren 3-pointer lifted the Rebels to a 41-27 lead with more than 16 minutes remaining.
South Carolina had one more run. Thanks to a full-court press defense, they forced Ole Miss to turn the ball over and trailed just 50-45 on two free throws by Sam Muldrow with less than 10 minutes left. The Rebels figured out how to break the trap, though, and scored eight straight points. They used long passes to find big men Reginald Buckner and Terrance Henry inside for easy slams and layups. Ole Miss scored 30 points inside the paint and had 13 fastbreak points, compared to South Carolina’s zero.
Warren scored 13 of his game-high 20 points for Ole Miss after halftime. Henry added 14 points and 11 rebounds and Buckner and Dundrecous Nelson each scored 10 points.
For South Carolina, Ramon Galloway had 17 points and Muldrow, the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year, had seven blocks in addition to 12 points.
Ole Miss advances to play the East’s No. 2 seed Kentucky in a quarterfinal at 2:30 p.m. on Friday. Ole Miss edged the Wildcats 71-69 in the teams’ lone regular-season meeting on Feb. 1 in Oxford, Miss.
• Georgia 69, Auburn 51: Georgia kept its NCAA Tournament hopes alive with its first-round victory over Auburn.
The Bulldogs (21-10) led from start to finish and outplayed the Tigers (11-20) in just about every facet of the game. But Georgia, the fourth seed out of the East Division, really crashed the glass. They won the rebounding battle 39-27.
Auburn, the fifth seed out of the West, allowed the Bulldogs to grab 18 offensive rebounds, which led to 19 second-chance points.
Georgia’s Trey Thompkins (22 points, 10 rebounds) and Travis Leslie (12 points, 10 rebounds) each had double-doubles. Tennessee State transfer and Nashville native Gerald Robinson added 11 points and six assists. Auburn was led by freshman Chris Denson, who scored 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting.
Georgia advances to play SEC West champion Alabama (20-10) in a quarterfinal at noon on Friday in what could be a NCAA Tournament play-in game.
In his latest bracketology projection, ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi has Georgia as one of his last four teams into the tournament and has Alabama on the bubble as one of his first four teams out.
"We did not want to be the first team to go home, Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "So I was proud of how we were able to defend and play from really in front most of the game and get the win."