published Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Vols survive senior day scare


by Wes Rucker
  • photo
    Tennessee's Bobby Maze (3) drives against Arkansas's Courtney Fortson (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, March 3, 2010, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE -- Few things have come too easily for the seniors on the University of Tennessee men's basketball team.

Wednesday's senior night was no different.

But Wednesday, like most of the seniors' games in Thompson-Boling Arena, ended with a UT win.

The Volunteers pulled away from Arkansas midway through the second half and held off the feisty Razorbacks for an 80-73 win.

Sixteenth-ranked UT (22-7, 10-5 Southeastern Conference) sewed up a No. 3 Eastern Division seed in next week's conference tournament, while a fourth-consecutive loss prevented Arkansas (14-16, 7-8) from a chance to share the West Division title.

UT's seniors were equally surprised by Coach Bruce Pearl's postgame comments.

Pearl wasn't particularly pleasant, despite his team shooting better than 50 percent from the field in both halves. He pointed to the Vols' 17 turnovers, 37-33 rebounding deficit and other sloppy moments rather than focusing on his happy-go-lucky veterans.

"I think how you feel a lot of times has to do with your expectations," Pearl said moments after the game. "I was pleased to win, but was hoping that we could build on how we played Saturday, and we did not. We didn't play basketball like you need to play basketball in March. We played good defense ... but I was just hoping that we would play better, and I was expecting them to play better, so I wasn't very happy with the team after the game.

"We just weren't particularly sharp."

The Vols' lead dwindled to 51-47 on a Rotnei Clarke 3-pointer with 15 minutes left, and Pearl lost his cool moments later.

UT sophomore guard Cameron Tatum was then whistled for a questionable, late charging foul on what could have been a 3-point play -- the referee motioned for nothing until the ball went through the basket -- and Pearl kept fuming at the officials until one gave him the technical.

"As soon as I saw Coach Pearl throw that jacket that hard, I was like, 'Oh, yeah, this is going to be a 'T.' This is going to be good,'" senior point guard Bobby Maze said.

Clarke hit one of the two technical free tosses, narrowing the gap to 51-48 with 14:34 left, but the Vols responded in a big way. Senior wing J.P. Prince leaked out on a fast break for a slam dunk, capping a 10-0 run that extended UT's lead to 61-48 with 11:23 left.

"We wanted to have some fun on senior night, and we definitely had some fun," Prince said. "I think Coach Pearl thought we were having too much fun. I don't know, man. Honestly, I didn't think we played that bad, but you know how Coach is.

"He's a coach. That's his job. He's supposed to be mad like that sometimes."

Pearl wasn't as upset after the game, but he pulled no verbal punches about his team's overall performance. His nearly 12-minute postgame interview session featured words and facial expressions usually reserved for UT losses.

"Obviously, I was upset at that time, and that's why I got a technical foul," Pearl said. "We may have picked up our energy for a minute, but that's not what should have happened at the beginning. We're trying to play well together from the start. I shouldn't have to jump-start them like that. We turned it over 17 times, and I just don't know how many of them were forced. Turnovers stuck out, and our willingness to compete, take it to contact and be the physical aggressor ... just wasn't enough.

"If you don't mind, I don't want to reflect on the seniors' careers right now, because we've got a long way to go. I promise you I will reflect on their careers. They've had wonderful careers, and I'm very appreciative. But I'm not concerned with that right now.

"We need to get better. March won't last very long if we play like this. I wasn't happy with the basketball I saw tonight from Tennessee."

Arkansas put together one more rally after UT's 10-run. Delvon Johnson scored inside to cap an 8-2 spurt that got the Razorbacks within 62-56 with 7:56 left, but a Tatum 3 polished off the 7-2 Vols' run moments later that essentially ended the game.

"I thought we had some very nice opportunities on the offensive side ... and we did not convert enough of those chances," Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said. "To win on the road in this league against an outstanding opponent like Tennessee, those have to be converted.

"We competed. We just did not make our shots."

The Hogs' top three scorers -- Clarke, fellow guard Courtney Forston and versatile freshman forward Marshawn Powell -- shot a combined 13-for-44 from the field to get their 40 points.

Hopson led the Vols with 15 points. All three scholarship seniors finished in double-digits. Forward Wayne Chism had 14, while Prince and Maze added 12 apiece. Tatum tossed in 12, too.

"After the buzzer, I thought, 'Man, this is the last time I'm going to shoot on these rims in a game,'" Chism said. "It's going to be a lot different after this."

Chism was "happy" to leave his home floor with a win one last time, but he agreed with Pearl's contention that it could have been prettier.

"We were being soft for a while, and Coach Pearl actually had to beg for some fouls there for a while," Chism said. "I think we were just too excited there in the first half. It was some very unforced turnovers that we gave Arkansas.

"We were basically giving them all kinds of gifts for Christmas, and it's not even Christmas."

The Vols cap their regular season Saturday at SEC West-leading Mississippi State (21-9, 9-6). The Bulldogs badly need a win to bolster their NCAA tournament resume.

Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.

about Wes Rucker...

Twitter - @wesrucker Facebook - /tfpvolsbeat

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