Vols earn a break

Tennessee's 68-59 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday was not the biggest of the season for the Vols, but it was still important.

Coach Bruce Pearl's team had lost three of its last four games. The confidence appeared a bit shaky. Players looked tired at times and played ragged. The press hadn't been overly affective. The half-court defense was coming apart.

Losing four of five isn't the way you want to enter the SEC Tournament, which starts Thursday in Nashville.

A win was needed to restore some faith, to stop the bleeding for the team that won the East Division way back on Feb. 22 – ahead of Kentucky and Florida.

But a Tennessee win looked in doubt for most of Saturday at Memorial Gym. The Vols looked lethargic on defense, the offense didn't flow, shots weren't falling, turnovers were mounting and Vanderbilt assumed a 16-point lead.

The margin was double digits several minutes into the second half.

It appeared a minor miracle would be needed for Pearl to win his first game against the Commodores on the road.

Then, Major Wingate got his fourth foul.

It was a blessing in disguise. Nothing against Wingate, but when the Vols went small, they got more aggressive, started forcing turnovers, racheted up the press, began hitting shots and seemed to find a reserve of energy.

Tennessee mounted a huge closing run that stole a win away from Vandy and any hope the Commodores had of playing in the NCAA Tournament – save for winning the SEC Tournament.

Pearl, wearing his orange blazer, was ecstatic with the victory.

``It's a great sign when you do not play your best and still win,'' Pearl said.

Indeed, the Vols didn't play their best. They shot 28 percent in the first half, 39 percent for the game. They hit just 7 of 28 3-point attempts. They committed nine first-half turnovers. And Chris Lofton missed a free throw, his first this season in SEC play, to fall one shy of tying the school record of 39 in a row.

Despite long odds, Tennessee kept scratching. Andre Patterson chipped in five steals, four blocks and four defensive rebounds. Lofton, after a horrible first half, scored 21 -- 17 in the second half -- as he hit 7 of 8 two-point attempts. JaJuan Smith had a team-high eight rebounds. Stanley Asumnu added seven boards.

``Absolutely great team stats,'' Pearl said.

Pearl didn't leave out Wingate's 10 points and four rebounds in limited minutes.

``We had to take him out at one point and get on him about rebounding,'' Pearl said. ``Major could be sooo good.''

Then there as the 3-pointer Dane Bradshaw hit in the final minutes to give the Vols a 4-point cushion. UT stretched the gap by making 15 of 16 free throws.

``Dane makes the shot at Florida, the shot at Florida, the shot at Vanderbilt,'' Pearl said. ``At home, he hasn't made that shot. He needs to get over that hump.''

Just as Tennessee got over the hump against Vanderbilt, despite being outplayed for the better part of 30 minutes.

But at crunch time, the team some Vol fans feared had run out of gas, had peaked too soon, found a way to make one more run.

``Just when you thought they'd done all they could,'' Pearl said of his players, ``they rise up and get it done again. How in the world did Tennessee win that basketball game?''

Pearl answered his own question: ``With character and a will to win.''

And a belief that dates back to the first meeting Pearl had with his team, when he convinced them they could achieve if they believed. And they believed.

Now, Tennessee enters the SEC Tournament with a much-needed win under its belt, a win that curbed a downward trend. As the No. 1 East seed, the Vols don't play until Friday.

Asked if beating Vandy gave UT momentum heading into the SEC tourney, Pearl said: ``No question. No question. I can't say enough about these kids and the job they've done. … This win caps off the regular season in a very positive way.''

Pearl said he will give his players a much deserved rest before preparing for the conference tournament.

``We might play a little laser tag,'' Pearl said.

It's a break well earned.

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