Vols show they can handle anything
Knoxville News Sentinel
As a crowd of cameras pressed closer to coach Bruce Pearl’s face in the FedEx Forum corridor, he warned the media: “Don’t get too close. It’s not pretty.”
He was kidding, of course.
In fact, Tennessee basketball has never looked better.
The Vols didn’t just beat No. 1-ranked Memphis on Saturday night. They proved they could beat anybody.
Consider what UT overcame to defeat the previously unbeaten Tigers 66-62:
n A loud, hostile arena, where the home team had won 47 consecutive games.
n UT’s leading scorer, Chris Lofton, only got one shot in the first half, and he missed that.
n JaJuan Smith, UT’s second-leading scorer, only played 11 minutes in the second half because of leg cramps.
n Memphis hit 3-pointers on its first three possessions and had eight 3s in the first half.
“They were going to blow us out of here,” was Pearl’s assessment of Memphis’ 3-point attack to open the game.
That’s why the counter 3s delivered by Smith were as crucial as any baskets the Vols made down the stretch.
Three times, in the midst of Memphis’ initial charge, Smith made long shots over outstretched arms and well beyond the 3-point arc. Those clutch shots kept the Vols within striking distance.
“If JaJuan doesn’t hit those big shots, they blow us out of here,” Pearl emphasized.
Not only had Memphis been uncharacteristically accurate from 3-point range, its tenacious half-court defense had reduced UT’s offense to only the most difficult shots.
Pearl assessed the damage at halftime and rallied the troops.
“Gosh, they make eight 3s — they (should be) up 15,” Pearl told his team. “And they’re only up one.
“I told (the team), they can’t beat us with 3s. They just can’t.”
He was right. And once the Tigers cooled on the perimeter, their offense was transformed into the two-man gang of Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose, a couple of future NBA guards who challenged the Vols possession after possession down the stretch.
But just as the Vols withstood Memphis’ early 3-point assault, they weathered Douglas-Roberts and Rose as well. The talented twosome just didn’t have enough help.
The most stunning statistic in UT’s victory was the 50-34 rebounding advantage. That reflected how superior UT was inside. Wayne Chism, J.P Prince and Tyler Smith clearly got the better of Memphis post players Robert Dozier, Joey Dorsey and Shawn Taggart.
Here’s another head-turning stat: JaJuan Smith had 10 rebounds — four more than anybody on Memphis’ team — in 27 minutes.
“We found a way to win,” Pearl concluded.
Even if UT hadn’t won the game, it wouldn’t have lost much. Both teams looked of Final Four caliber in the nationally televised game that was hyped as one of the biggest sporting events in the city’s history.
Pearl admittedly was too immersed in the game to fully appreciate the atmosphere. But he got a flash of it.
“I did look over at (ESPN basketball analyst Dick) Vitale and think, ‘I hope he’s bringing this back to America the way I’m feeling it.’
“He would know better than me what it was like to be at other arenas. I can’t believe it could have been any more electric.
“This is it. This is as good as it gets.”
On Monday, it will only get better. The Vols surely will be ranked No. 1 in both top-25 polls. Don’t think that didn’t come up in Pearl’s pregame speech.
“I told our team, ‘I don’t know if we’re the best team in college basketball,’ ” he said. “ ‘But we’re 40 minutes away from being No. 1.’ ”
He was right again.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com.
© 2008, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.