“Man, when I see that, that makes me pounce on ‘em,” Richardson said. “That’s like when a shark smells blood in the water. When I see it in his eyes that he don’t want the ball that makes me go to another level. I think my teammates are getting that same instinct.”
True. Richardson’s isn’t the only Vol who goes for the jugular when he senses an opponent is weary.
“Now that we see they’re tired,” Kevin Punter said, “we want to keep our foot on their neck, keep going and going and going.”
What has turned these nice guys into blood-thirsty victimizers? A sudden passion for defense. Somehow head coach Donnie Tyndall has this group playing defense with a level of energy and enthusiasm normally reserved for offense. Moreover, the Vols have the stamina to sustain their energy for 40 minutes … about 10 minutes longer than most opponents.
“Our press is going to wear them out,” junior forward Derek Reese said. “Our bench play is going to wear people out. We’re built to win (late). All of the running we did in the offseason – Monday through Friday at 6 o’clock in the morning – is paying off.”
It certainly paid off in Sunday’s upset of No. 15 Butler. Down 12 points a minute into the second half, Tennessee’s relentless defensive pressure exhausted the Bulldogs, enabling the Vols to outscore them 42-18 over the final 19 minutes and prevail 67-55.
“The conditioning and practicing that we have done lends us to being a second-half team,” Tyndall said. “We use the term 'take their legs in the second half.' We have proven to be a second-half team. Our defense and press wore on them. Our play just wears on people."
Butler dominated the first half of Sunday’s game and appeared headed for a smashing victory. As the second half wore on, however, the depth-shy Bulldogs wore out.
“They didn’t want to play very many guys off the bench, and we do,” Richardson said. “The second half they started slowing down, and that’s when we started picking it up.”
Every program talks about playing air-tight defense but it’s lip service in most cases.
“A lot of teams act like they can guard but, at the end of the day, they just want you to take a long shot, so they can go back down to the other (offensive) end,” junior wing Armani Moore said. “It’s all about wearing on people. You’ve got to keep checking into them, and eventually they’ll start to fold.”
Asked if he can tell when an opponent is about to fold, Moore nodded emphatically.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Once the turnovers start you can tell that a team’s sort of frustrated and trying to get rid of the ball a little quicker than they usually would get rid of it. It’s pretty obvious when you start seeing the other team getting sped up a little bit.”
And, once an opponent’s energy level begins to drop, Tennessee’s energy level begins to rise.
“It does a lot,” Moore said. “The crowd gets into it and starts cheering because they see the intensity picking up. I feel like that gives us an extra boost, like having an extra man on the court.”
Butler is just the latest Vol foe to fade at the finish due to fatigue. Tennessee players have come to expect opponents to wilt down the stretch.
“When guys are getting pressed the whole game, they’re fighting to get the ball past half-court,” Richardson said. “They’re getting trapped the whole game, and nobody likes playing against that. As the game wears on, they start wearing down. At the end of the game their legs are pretty much shot.”
Tennessee has been a slow-starting team all season but the Vols never panic. They know their defense eventually will force the opponent into costly mistakes that will shift the momentum.
“We’ve played better the second half pretty much every game,” Richardson noted. “We get to trapping and pressing a lot, and they start coughing up the ball.”
Tennessee has had to rally from second-half deficits in virtually every victory to date. Knowing they have superior stamina enables the Vols to stay calm even when they’re down by double digits, and that kind of poise is invaluable.
“It’s huge,” Reese said. “It gives us a lot of confidence. Even if we’re down two or three points going into that final five minutes we feel confident because we’re in shape. We see them (opponents) bent over and tired. When you’re tired you start making mistakes mentally, so being more in shape than the other team helps you a lot.”
Being “more in shape” is especially beneficial at home. Sensing that the opponent is wilting, Tennessee fans become more animated and vocal. The Vols feed off of this and became even more ferocious on defense.
“It’s great when the crowd’s rocking,” Punter said. “It really makes you want to sit down (in your stance) and play defense. Our press is crazy because when we score we just find (new) life and we get after it.”