KNOXVILLE — Any loss in mid-February is damaging.
But considering what's next — a trip to No. 18 Vanderbilt on Tuesday — Tennessee's home defeat to Georgia on Saturday might have been an even bigger blow to a UT teetering toward the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
"Vanderbilt's better than Georgia," UT coach Bruce Pearl said after the Vols' 69-63 loss. "Vanderbilt's tougher than Georgia. Vanderbilt's more physical than Georgia. And we got out-toughed and out-physicaled, and the team we play next is bigger, stronger, tougher and just as angry about losing a game to us."
UT (16-11, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) rallied from a 17-point first-half deficit to beat the Commodores (20-6, 8-4) last month. Vanderbilt has won eight of 10 games since losing at UT and is currently riding a five-game winning streak.
Like Georgia, the Commodores have an inside-outside balance that's difficult for opposing defenses to handle. Guard John Jenkins leads the SEC in scoring (19.9 points per game), and guard Brad Tinsley is a capable shooter anywhere on the floor. Vanderbilt's frontcourt of Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli average 27 points and 12 rebounds between them.
Though UT outscored Georgia 40-34 in the paint, the Bulldogs' inside tandem of Trey Thompkins and Jeremy Price combined for 31 points and 15 rebounds.
"Between [Price] and Thompkins," Pearl said, "they had 13 defensive rebounds [and] we only had 10 offensive rebounds. Those two big guys dominated the game. "We played behind the post. It's a simple as that. They beat us over the top one time. They ducked in and scored over the top of us.
"It's pretty simple what you've got to do, and that was not something we were supposed to do. We were supposed to be over the top. Our post guys...did not do a good enough job of getting over the top."
UT has won just twice in its last seven trips Vanderbilt's vaunted Memorial Gym, and a loss would give the Vols a losing league record with three games remaining before the SEC tournament.
Though Harris and Scotty Hopson combined for 50 of UT's 63 points on Saturday, Harris said there's a different pressure when his teammates' struggles force the Vols' top scoring duo to increase their own scoring load.
"I wouldn't say it's a lot of pressure [to score more], but it's kind of pressure on us because we want them to score and we want them to do well," the freshman forward said. "If those guys have good nights and we all have good nights, that's a game we would have came out there and won.
"It's not really pressure, it's just me and Scotty just wanting them to play well, and they will play well. It's just one game that we didn't get too much from them, but they will play well in the stretch."
White, orange and green
The white-clad crowd on Saturday was part of the third annual game for the OUTLIVE program, which the UT basketball program and Pearl started three years ago in response to former Vol guard Chris Lofton's battle with and defeat of cancer following the 2007-08 season.
Through donations and the purchases of white OUTLIVE t-shirts, supporters of the program donated $70,000 this year to benefit cancer patients and their families at the UT Medical Center Cancer Institute and raised the three-year total to more than $330,000.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...