"I was just trying to turn it on, take the game over," said Watson, a senior point guard previously known more for his quiet manner than his take-charge demeanor. "My teammates kept telling me to take the game over, and I was just trying find a way to do that. The last nine minutes is when I did it."
Fellow guard Chris Lofton contributed 26 points but had 21 of those four minutes into the second half. USI shut down Lofton at this point and made a 26-11 run, turning a 49-39 deficit into a 65-60 lead. That's when Watson began taking charge and Dane Bradshaw began taking charges.
Bradshaw hit a free throw, then Watson drained a 3-pointer off a Bradshaw steal. Watson added two free throws, then Lofton made a spectacular driving three-point play – his first points in more than 10 minutes – to give Tennessee a 71-68 lead with 6:04 to play.
Southern Indiana pulled even at 71-all but Bradshaw took two crucial charges and Watson hit eight of eight free throws down the stretch as the Vols gradually pulled away. Watson finished 12 of 12 from the line. As a team, Tennessee was 32 of 37, including 15 of 16 over the final 8:45.
"Watson's late-game heroics were way out of character. Although he is soon to begin his fourth year as the starting point guard, he was never assertive … until Thursday night. This was probably his most aggressive performance ever.
"Yeah, I think so," he said. "I just really didn't want to lose tonight, so I tried to take the game over, help my team out, whatever it needed me to be."
Watson and Lofton – both preseason All-SEC performers – combined to score 53 of Tennessee's 86 points.
"Chris and C.J. are as good as advertised," Pearl said. "They were advertised to be one of the best backcourts in the SEC, and they're both better than I thought they were. Trust me: Everything they did tonight, I expect from them – and more."
As the heart and soul of this team, Lofton and Watson must produce points, solid floor play and pesky defense every time out. Can they deliver?
"I think so," Watson said. "Me and Chris can handle it, with the other role players – Major (Wingate) and Andre (Patterson) and Stan (Asumnu) and Dane (Bradshaw) and JaJuan (Smith). As a team, we all can do it."
Wingate produced 10 points and 10 rebounds, Asumnu 10 points and 8 rebounds. The Vols were without Patterson, who missed the game under disciplinary suspension.
Pearl delivered on his promise of an up-tempo offense. Tennessee scored 86 points despite shooting a mere 37.7 percent from the floor. The coach's scrappy fullcourt pressure was noticeable, too, forcing 27 USI turnovers. Pearl's fiery demeanor was in evidence, as well. He got hit with a second-half technical foul. Asked what happened, Pearl quipped, "They (officials) didn't want my opinion."
Southern Indiana, a Div. II powerhouse, did not go quietly. The well-coached Screaming Eagles gave the Vols quite a scare before succumbing.
"We did enough things right to win," Pearl said. "That's the bottom line: We found a way to win, and that's a good, good step."