Vols hound Dawgs

Georgia shot 57.7 percent from the floor in the first half of Wednesday night's game at Thompson-Boling Arena, including 57.1 percent from 3-point range. The Bulldogs also won the backboards 20-14 and held Tennessee scoring leader Chris Lofton without a point.

The fact the visitors trailed 40-36 could be traced to three factors:

One, C.J. Watson took the Vols on his back and carried them. He essentially played a perfect half – four of four from the field, four of four from the line, plus game highs in points (13), rebounds (4), assists (3) and steals (4).

Two, a rowdy crowd of 21,612 was not going to sit idly by and watch Tennessee lose. Spurred by the fans, the Vols played with a level of effort and passion Georgia simply could not match.

Three, Tennessee's defensive pressure forced 14 first-half turnovers. It also wore down the Bulldogs, who wilted in the game's final minutes, allowing Tennessee to pull away and win 89-76.

Moments after his team moved to 11-1 overall and 2-0 in Southeastern Conference play, first-year Vol coach Bruce Pearl seemed almost overwhelmed by it all.

"This was a terrific game, a phenomenal venue and a great SEC home opener," he said, obviously drained. "Nobody else in the SEC, other than maybe Kentucky, would have 21,000 in the building."

The crowd wasn't just big, though. It was animated and vocal – cheering the Vols, hounding the Bulldogs and providing an atmosphere long lacking in Knoxville.

"I haven't seen a crowd like that since my freshman year," said Watson, a senior.

Although the Vols played a superb second half – out-shooting Georgia 53.3 to 41.9 and winning the backboards 19-17 – the crowd contributed significantly to the victory.

"I think it really elevated our play," Pearl said. "When you're a team that depends on runs, it makes the runs last longer. And, every time we made a run, Georgia had to call a timeout and they (fans) had an opportunity to celebrate and participate in this win"

After his scoreless first half, Lofton participated in the win, too. He nailed six of eight second-half shots and tallied 16 points.

"I didn't think he was hunting his shot (in the first half)," Pearl said. "But Chris does a great job of taking what the defense gives him. I thought the second half he took it off the bounce and made some offense. And we need him to do that. We need his ability to create."

No one was more creative on this night than Watson, however. No one was more productive, either. The slender point guard finished five of six from the floor and nine of 10 from the foul line. His totals included game highs in points (20), rebounds (9) and steals (5), along with six assists.

Asked what Watson means to the team, Pearl shook his head and replied: "It's just unreal. He is the most productive player at the position in the league. He has unreal shooting percentages, gets to the foul line, set a record for steals tonight. He just fills up a stat sheet."

As usual, though, Tennessee got contributions from a lot of sources. JaJuan Smith came off the bench to deliver 16 points and 3 steals. Major Wingate hit six of eight from the floor, finishing with 14 points and 6 rebounds. Andre Patterson snapped a three-game slump with 11 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 24 quality minutes. Dane Bradshaw chipped in a game-high 8 assists and a like number of rebounds.

"Dane turned his ankle pretty good in the first half, and at halftime the trainer wasn't sure he could go," Pearl said. "It was about pain tolerance because it was pretty swollen. A lot of guys wouldn't have played on that."

Tennessee led by just nine points with 5:45 to go, then used a 13-4 spurt to go up by 18 (87-69) and seal the deal with 1:55 remaining. The Vols clearly had more in their tank at the finish.

"I think conditioning was a factor again tonight," Pearl said.

Because Georgia utilizes a three-guard lineup, Tennessee's full-court press wasn't supposed to be much of a factor. But it was. The Vols forced 22 turnovers with it, prompting Pearl to note, "I was thrilled with the pressure."

Sundiata Gaines scored 17 points, Channing Toney and Mike Mercer 15 each for Georgia, which slips to 10-5 overall and 0-2 in league play.

All in all, it was a great win over a fine team in a fantastic atmosphere. Although 24,500-seat Thompson-Boling had a few empty seats, it has never been much fuller or much louder than it was Wednesday night.

"I've been in buildings my whole life that have been too small," Pearl said. "I wanted to coach in a building everybody said was too big.

"It didn't look too big tonight."

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