All about poise

Very few college basketball games are won on sheer talent. The majority are won on composure. There is so much parity these days that most games are still in doubt entering the final minutes. Thus, the team that executes with the most poise and precision at the finish prevails. The other guys lose.

The Tennessee Vols were "the other guys" a lot in recent seasons. Last winter, in their final year under Buzz Peterson, the 2004-05 Vols went 7-8 in games decided by 11 points or less. Most of the setbacks came against the likes of UT-Chattanooga, Nebraska, Auburn, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Simply put, the Vols showed an annoying knack for losing the close ones.

In their first year under Bruce Pearl, however, many of those same players are 3-0 in games decided by 11 points or less. While the opposition hasn't been the Duke Blue Devils or the North Carolina Tar Heels, these Vols seem to have a knack for winning the close ones.

The obvious question: Why is the 2005-06 team routinely winning the kind of games the 2004-05 team routinely lost?

"It's a lot of things combined," senior point guard C.J. Watson said. "It's more confidence in the offense, more confidence in each other. Coach (Pearl) has confidence in us, so we're going with that. We've been there before in late-game situations, and we want to win now instead of losing."

Tennessee came from behind in the final five minutes to beat Louisiana-Lafayette 83-76 in Game 2, then overcame another deficit in the final seven minutes to trip Murray State 64-53 in Game 4. It was more of the same in Game 5, as Tennessee rallied from a 12-point first-half deficit, then pulled out of a 65-all tie in the final 12 minutes to subdue Appalachian State 89-81.

Many observers felt the 2004-05 Vols lacked the mental toughness to come up big in the final minutes. Regardless, Watson says this year's team has plenty of guts, noting: "Close games have brought us closer together as a team. It shows how much fight we have in us to be down 12, then fight back to win the game."

Junior forward Dane Bradshaw thinks the turnaround from last year to this year is more about faith than fight.

"Nothing against the last coaching staff," he said, "but with a 4-0 record and a new coach, you immediately have confidence in him, in his staff and in each other.

"At no time were we ever panicking, thinking we were going to lose the game (vs. Appy State). We realized we were just a couple of steals away. With the (defensive) pressure we put on, we're going to get a run going."

Asked if the late-game composure suggests the Vols have greater confidence in themselves or in their coach, Bradshaw replied: "It's a mixture of both."

He traces the birth of that confidence to Nov. 3, when Tennessee rallied late to beat Div. II powerhouse Southern Indiana 86-78 in an exhibition game that marked the beginning of the Bruce Pearl era.

"Having played a close game against Southern Indiana, winning that, then having some other close games we won at the end has given us confidence," Bradshaw said. "It's given us a swagger toward the end of games."

In other words, a team once known for staggering at the finish now finds itself swaggering at the finish.

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