Grudge rematch tonight

Winners make plays; losers make excuses.<P> There's some truth in that but Tennessee's basketball players weren't just offering feeble excuses following their 66-63 loss at South Carolina earlier this season. They had a legitimate complaint. Eleven of the last 12 fouls called in that game went against the Vols, enabling the homestanding Gamecocks to come from behind and notch a controversial win.

Five weeks later, the Vols still recall that earlier setback. Perhaps they can use that to their advantage in tonight's rematch (7:30 tipoff) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

''I think there's a little motivation for that South Carolina game,'' head coach Buzz Peterson said this week. ''We were so close to winning it -- a couple of calls here and there -- so there's some motivation laying in that game.''

Certainly, Tennessee NEEDS some motivation. The Vols have lost seven of their last eight games. With an 11-14 overall record and a 4-8 SEC mark, they are almost assured of a losing record. A season that began with hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid likely won't even produce an NIT bid. Moreover, senior captains Brandon Crump (ankle) and Scooter McFadgon (knee) are limited by injuries. In short, the UT basketball program is a disaster area at the moment.

So, how does a coach keep his team upbeat under such negative circumstances?

''I've talked to 'em all year about staying positive,'' Peterson said. ''Hopefully, we'll get Crump and Scooter back out there on the floor for the game, and see what we can do.''

Even a talented spin doctor such as Peterson is struggling to put a positive spin on this season. Still, the coach continues to preach patience and perseverence.

''I'll continue talking to them, motivating them and trying to keep them on the same page,'' he said. ''Sometimes it's difficult because everybody wants to win but they've been pretty good about coming out and making the effort to get better every time out.''

Even as rumors about his job security swirl, Peterson says he can't let that distract him or his team.

''I stay focused on what I've got to do,'' he said. ''I believe in what we're doing. And I stay on top of recruiting.''

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