Boost from the bench

Suspended head man Bruce Pearl didn't show up for Tennessee's recent basketball games vs. Vanderbilt and Georgia. Fortunately for the Vols, their bench did.

Big Orange reserves played critical roles in each of the past two outings - in stark contrast to the previous two games, when Tennessee got very little production from its substitutes.

In a Game 15 loss at Arkansas Vol substitutes combined to score 15 points on 6-of-15 shooting, with more than twice as many turnovers (7) as assists (3). In a Game 16 home-floor loss to Florida the bench produced a mere 8 points on 3-of-11 shooting and 7 rebounds.

Now compare those numbers to the ones Tennessee reserves posted in last Saturday's defeat of Vanderbilt and Tuesday night's win at Georgia:

In the former Skylar McBee came off the bench to record 10 points and a game-high three steals. His back-to-back 3-pointers ignited the Vols' comeback from an 11-point second-half deficit. Brian Williams added 8 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks vs. Vandy. Josh Bone, Trae Golden and Steven Pearl were scoreless off the bench but helped limit the hot-shooting Commodores to just 5 of 18 makes from 3-point range.

The bench play was even more productive at Georgia. Williams made 5 of 6 shots, including the game-winner at the buzzer, en route to 10 points. McBee added 6 points and nailed 2 of 3 tries beyond the arc - his only miss being a 40-foot desperation heave as the shot clock expired. Bone added 2 points, an assist and a steal, while Steven Pearl chipped in 2 points. All told, Tennessee reserves made 9 of 14 field-goal attempts - totaling 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and just 2 turnovers.

Two factors stand out in Tennessee's improved bench play: One, McBee is warming up from 3 after a lengthy slump. Two, Williams seems more energetic coming off the bench the past three games than he was as a starter.

"You're beginning to see some of the effectiveness of the bench," head coach Bruce Pearl conceded. "Obviously, Brian's play the last two games has been very significant. It's what we expected to see ... it's what we saw early in the season.

"And Skylar McBee is getting into a little bit more of a flow offensively - taking some big shots, getting fouled, bringing us the energy."

As chief backup to star freshman Tobias Harris, Steven Pearl also has provided a boost off the bench, despite his offensive limitations.

"We really are trying to focus on getting Pearl in there on defensive opportunities - maybe yo-yoing him a little bit more with Tobias," the head man said. "Let Tobias get in there for some offensive opportunities, then getting Steven in there before TV timeouts, so Tobias gets a longer rest ... little things like that."

The availability of Bone, who missed the first 11 games due to a fractured wrist, has bolstered the bench considerably. He has hit 4 of 9 shots from 3 and has significantly upgraded the Vols' perimeter defense.

"Josh Bone is one of our better defenders," Pearl noted, adding: "The past few ballgames I thought we've gotten better bench play and better continuity."

Although Tennessee has trimmed its playing rotation a bit in recent weeks, the Vols still rely heavily on quality play from their bench. In addition to the statistics his reserves contribute, Pearl believes they enable his starters to be fresher when the game reaches crunch time in the final minutes.

"I think it's important," the coach said, noting that "Georgia had three guys play 36 or more minutes. Even though we're not pressing, fatigue can still be a factor - even with all of the TV timeouts and all of that stuff. That's especially true when you're defending and playing with as much effort and energy as I thought we did.

"I thought we were fresh enough at the end because we played 10, 11, 12 guys. Our depth has served us well for a long, long time. It's not going to stop serving us well now."

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