Over the past two years Tennessee has transformed itself from a team with a knack for losing into a team with a knack for winning. For instance, after going 2-7 in games decided by five points or less in 2004-05, the Big Orange is 6-2 in such games over the past two years.
That's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, though. Consider the clutch finishes the 2006-07 Vols have produced during their current nine-game winning streak:
- They led Louisiana-Lafayette by just two points (67-65) with 4 minutes left before rallying to win by 10 (77-67).
- They trailed Oklahoms State by four (69-65) with 6:46 remaining before rallying to win 79-77.
- They trailed Texas by seven (87-80) with 1:57 left before rallying to win 111-105 in overtime.
- They trailed East Tennessee State by six (58-52) five minutes into the second half before rallying to win 93-88.
- They trailed Mississippi State by three (73-70) with seven minutes remaining before rallying to win 92-84.
So, why are the 2006-07 Vols routinely winning the kind of games they invariably lost in the Bad Old Days?
"Winning becomes a habit," senior forward Dane Bradshaw says. "No matter how much we're behind or what we're facing, we never lose that sense that we're going to pull this win out. I think that's huge for us. It stems from Coach (Bruce) Pearl and his past success. It's something we believe in."
Bradshaw, who was a sophomore reserve on the hapless 2004-05 team, concedes that the Vols were brimming with doubt – not confidence – in those days.
"As easily as winning becomes a habit, losing can, too," he says. "You start to second-guess yourself. In years past it was almost like 'Here we go again.'
"Nowadays – no matter what the situation – we feel like we're going to come back and win. It's a great feeling in the huddle. Even when you're not playing well, there's still that confidence that you're going to pull the win out."
Pearl believes Bradshaw provides a steadying influence in the late stages of close games that is invaluable. He saw further evidence of it in Sunday's come-from-behind defeat of Mississippi State.
As the coach recalls: "Dane Bradshaw was talking to the young guys and he said, 'Look, fellows, relax. We win these games. These are the games we win, so quit panicking.'"
There is no doubt that winning begets more winning. Or, as Pearl put it: "When you win close games like this, it should give a team confidence."
Although the coach is encouraged that his Vols can crank up the intensity in the final minutes, there's a flip side to that coin.
"Why do we need to wait for the last four or five minutes to crank it up?" he grumbles.
After a moment's pause, however, he answers his own question:
"At the end of a game fatigue is a factor and our conditioning is a factor," he notes. "The fact we're able to turn it up and the opponents haven't been able to turn it up as well is a function of our training."
Clearly, confidence and conditioning are two of the main reasons Tennessee has been coming through in the clutch lately. There's a third factor, however, that has been just as crucial during the Vols' nine-game winning streak:
"Yeah, getting the ball to 5," Pearl says, referring to junior sharpshooter Chris Lofton.
Lofton scored eight of Tennessee's last 10 points in the Game 14 defeat of ETSU and scored 11 of its last 20 in the Game 15 defeat of Mississippi State.
"Chris is that type of player that can take over at the end of a game," freshman post Duke Crews says. "We look to go to him at the end of the game but, at the same time, we've got other people who can fill it up, too. You have JaJuan (Smith) and a host of other players.
"It's not like a team can key on Chris, so that's big for us…. When you've got an All-American they can't double at the end of the game, it's great."