Praise for the defense

Tennessee's basketball team finished regular-season play ranked dead last among the 12 Southeastern Conference schools in both scoring defense (allowing 73.5 points per game) and field-goal defense (allowing 46.9 percent). It ranked 11th in 3-point defense (allowing 36.3 percent) and rebound defense (allowing 36.7 per game).

No wonder head coach Bruce Pearl had to wait 27 games before he could say anything good about his team's defensive abilities.

He took advantage of that opportunity Monday, however, reflecting on a regular-season finale which saw his team limit Vanderbilt to 32.8 percent shooting, including 27.9 percent in the second half. Moreover, the Vols held the Dores to just 30.8 percent from 3-point range, including a mere 23.1 percent in the second half.

"We played hard throughout," Pearl noted. "We didn't always play well but we kept ourselves in range with our defense."

Grinning smugly, he added: "That's the first time you could ever quote me on that all season long."

Tennessee entered the Vandy game on a two-game losing streak, having wilted down the stretch against both Arkansas and Kentucky. Pearl was determined to prevent a three-peat, so he reined in the Vols' trademark fullcourt press in the first half at Nashville.

"We had lost our last two games in part because we ran out of gas in the second half," he said. "Because of being on the road and because of Vanderbilt's attack, we really didn't extend much defensively (in the first half). Part of it was to conserve energy."

The Vols conserved energy in the first half but they forced just four Vandy turnovers. As a result, Tennessee went to the break down 31-21. The deficit reached 16 points (37-21) before the Big Orange unleashed its fullcourt press and turned the game around, outscoring the Commodores 47-22 over the game's final 17 minutes to notch a 68-59 victory.

"Fortunately," Pearl said, "we were able to stay in range and when we did extend and get after it, we were able to force some turnovers and get some transition baskets."

With 6-10 Major Wingate on the bench due to four fouls and 6-7 Andre Patterson on the bench for a breather, Tennessee played a significant portion of the final minutes with a lineup of 6-5 Stanley Asumnu, 6-4 Dane Bradshaw, 6-2 Chris Lofton, 6-2 C.J. Watson and 6-2 JaJuan Smith. Still, UT continued to rally.

"Foul trouble created a situation where we had to play even smaller than small," Pearl noted. "The fact we were able to still score through spread offense, defend and keep Vanderbilt off the boards with a small lineup out there went a long way towards doing something really significant – sweeping Vanderbilt and going undefeated on the road in the SEC East."

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