Wiedmer: Jones proves his ability, getting Vols to play hard in final half

Wiedmer: Jones proves his ability, getting Vols to play hard in final half

January 16th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

KNOXVILLE -- ESPN analyst jay Bilas looked into America's living rooms around 1 p.m. Saturday and said, "Don't tell me that Tennessee doesn't miss Bruce Pearl. They do. It's obvious."

And at that moment Pearl's absence was as tough to miss as the electric orange sport coat UT interim head coach Tony Jones insisted on wearing to this Vanderbilt-UT clash in honor of both former Volunteers coach Ray Mears and the suspended Pearl.

After all, the Vols were trailing Vanderbilt by 10 points at that halftime moment after being down by 17. They'd shot 20 percent from the field and missed all nine of their 3-pointers.

Added Bilas, as if his earlier statement hadn't stung the Big Orange Nation enough: "You couldn't tell if they were in a man or a zone [defense]. They were just standing there."

But college games never end at halftime. There's always a final 20 minutes. And when you've got 21,198 orange-clad Volniacs doing everything in their power to lift you up, well, in Jones' words, "You better not quit."

And so they didn't. In the words of junior Cam Tatum -- whose nerveless 3-pointer off the left wing put UT ahead for the first time in the second half with a mere 3:03 to play -- "What else did we have to lose? Might as well go hard for 20 minutes."

But those who believe those 20 second-half minutes alone are what ultimately made the Vols 67-64 winners for their first Southeastern Conference victory in their third league contest are forgetting the final 123 seconds of the opening half.

That's when Vanderbilt lost this game as much as UT later won it. That's when the Commodores' Brad Tinsley missed a free throw that would have turned VU's 17-point cushion to 18. That's when Jeffery Taylor -- believed to be the best player among these 'Dores -- missed consecutive layups.

Finally, most painfully for Vandy fans, that's when center Festus Ezeli decided to foul UT reserve guard Skylar McBee on a 3-pointer four seconds ahead of the horn.

McBee -- who had hit zero triples in six of his last eight games -- calmly drained all three free throws to pull the Vols within 30-20 at intermission.

Said Jones of those 123 crucial seconds: "Seventeen would have been tougher to come back from. When we cut it to 10 it was manageable."

It is never easy managing someone else's turmoil. Whether you like him or not, whether you think SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspending Pearl for UT's first eight conference games over NCAA recruiting violations was fair or not, the Vols' two league losses in their first two conference starts were Pearl's problem.

Long known as one of the best in-game coaches in his sport, Pearl's absence is arguably greater than most head coaches because his X and O talent coming out of timeouts and such is so superior to that of many of his counterparts.

But this game wasn't so much about plays as playing. Playing hard. And the Vols were without question the more aggressive team in that final half.

Said Jones of that intensity: "[The Vols] wanted the game much more than Vanderbilt in the second half, in my opinion."

Said losing coach Kevin Stallings, referring to his team's lack of defense against Scotty Hopson: "There were times we broke down or somebody got caught in transition where he really had no resistance."

It could be easy to avoid the urge to praise the Vols and their temporary head coach too much. Tennessee must visit Georgia on Tuesday night. The Bulldogs already have dispatched Kentucky inside Stegeman Colisum. There's no reason to think they can't whip the Vols as well.

But it wasn't only about heart and hustle Saturday. Late this past week, his team reeling from an 0-2 SEC start, including a home loss to Florida, Jones pulled McBee aside and said, "If you have a shot and you don't take it, you're coming out. Even if you miss one, two, three, four straight, I expect you to shoot a fifth."

So despite missing his first three 3-pointers against the Commodores, McBee launched a fourth near the start of the final half that swished cleanly through. Then he did again a few minutes later, drawing a foul in the process that resulted in a rare four-point play.

"It was nice to have Coach Jones tell me to keep shooting," McBee said. "It was nice to know he still had confidence in me when I wasn't hitting anything."

Then he said something else, something that hasn't been said about these Vols since long before Pearl's eight-game suspension began last week.

Said McBee: "Everybody played their role today."

Including their interim head coach.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.