Tennessee had to win Saturday. No, had Notre Dame finished its upset Super Regional win, the planets wouldn’t have spun out of alignment or anything.

It’s June. Crazy things happen among the admittedly superb college baseball teams that have made their way to the cusp of Omaha. A year ago, the best team in the country won its Super Regional opener 21-2 … and then lost 2 in a row to end the season.

But Tennessee falling out of the NCAA Tournament shy of Omaha would have been pretty surprising. It would have been pretty devastating to Tony Vitello’s building of UT’s program from something irrelevant to something nice to something historic. And it wouldn’t have exactly been a great look for the SEC — after all, Tennessee ran roughshod through the league in just about every way possible, only to look suddenly very human against Notre Dame.

And for 13 innings, Notre Dame had done what seemed more or less impossible. UT had managed a single 2-run inning, in the 7th on Friday’s 8-6 loss. But other than that, the UT scoreboard was full of 1 and 0 digits. How odd is that for this season, for this group of Vols? Well, in their regional win (3 games), the Vols posted a 5, a 3, a 4, another 4, and a 6. In Hoover for the SEC Tournament? In 4 games, the Vols had innings where they put up 5, 4, 6, 4, and 3 runs. If Notre Dame hadn’t entirely shut down the Vols (who had, after all, scored 7 runs in those 13 innings), they had at least slowed them down, made UT tack together single runs to try to outlast a feisty Fighting Irish squad.

But then came the 5th inning in a win-or-go-home Game 2 Saturday. UT led 1-0, and SEC Pitcher of the Year Chase Dollander didn’t need much more support on this day. But the Vols who have been the best team in the country … well, they made themselves known in the 5th inning. And what an inning it was.

Home run. Double. Single. Pop up. A 3-run homer. Pop up. Another homer. Walk. Single. Another 3-run homer. Walk. Fly out. The final tally: 8 runs, game over, and with UT’s mojo regained, a path to Omaha that had looked a little dark suddenly clear as day.

Staked to a 9-0 lead in that series-turning 5th inning, UT finished out a 12-4 win, beat Notre Dame’s mound ace, and allowed thousands of fans in Lindsey Nelson Stadium to exhale. The big-inning Vols reappeared.

To be sure, 4 home runs were a big part of the inning. First baseman Luc Lipcius hit a pair of the blasts — one to lead off the frame, and the 3-run blast to cap the 8 spot. But just as big were the little things. There were hidden keys like Seth Stephenson’s bunt single to bring around UT’s big boppers (two batters later, Jordan Beck homered in Stephenson). Unnoticed but critically important were a pair of walks to set the stage for Lipcius’ second homer and completely finish Notre Dame’s hopes of a Saturday win.

So after an up-and-down 24 hours, the Vols aren’t finished. Just the opposite. They have rediscovered their momentum (and hey, they did have a 3-run inning later in the game), and go into Sunday’s decisive Game 3 feeling pretty good about life.

Chase Burns, Drew Beam and a bullpen of ready arms are waiting. But the guess here is it won’t come down to those guys. It’ll come down to another big inning, another crooked number on the scoreboard, and another trip to Omaha. Thanks, in no small part, to Saturday’s 5th inning, which, if UT finishes off the Irish and continues its path in Omaha, might just be the Most Valuable Inning.