Tennessee (13-4, 1-1 SEC) has lost back-to-back heart-breakers, falling at Vanderbilt on a last-second tip-in, then losing at No. 5 Ohio State on a missed tip-in after a 3-pointer gave the Buckeyes a 68-66 lead with 11 seconds left.
If Tennessee is involved in another close game, will the Vols play with the swagger that has helped them win so many tight contests under the direction of Bruce Pearl? Or will seeds of doubt planted by recent loses affect the team?
Pearl was asked Monday about the psyche of his team.
``We had a great practice, one of our best of the year,'' Pearl said. ``All we've got is each other, and we're all hurting.
``We're anxious to play again to try to see if we can win a basketball game instead of just playing well.''
What did Tennessee learn from its defeat in Columbus?
``What I learned more than anything was how much the players cared,'' Pearl said. ``Lots of kids in the locker room were very emotional. They weren't interested in moral victories. They weren't interested in anything but having a positive outcome.''
Pearl said the plane ride home was quiet. The three-and-a-half-hour practice Monday, Pearl said, was very good.
``The attitude was terrific,'' Pearl said.
Still, the defeat was gut-wrenching, considering officials blew two late calls. With 11.2 seconds left, Jamar Butler's toe was on the 3-point line. Instead of Ohio State leading 68-66, it should have been a one-point game.
Would that have mattered in the final analysis? Probably not.
Then, after Ramar Smith missed a driving shot to the basket and Wayne Chism failed to convert a tip-in, a mad scramble ensued in the corner near the UT bench. An Ohio State player was clearly out of bounds with 1.8 seconds left.
Pearl was screaming at the official, to no avail.
``I'm right down in corner, I'm running down there yelling at the official to please blow his whistle and please stop the game because he was out of bounds,'' Pearl said. ``But he (official) didn't.''
Could UT have scored with 1.8 seconds left? Who knows? But Pearl would have liked a shot, especially with a gunner like Chris Lofton on his side.
I thought Pearl should have called a timeout after Butler's basket put Ohio State ahead for two reasons. One, to challenge Butler's 3-pointer. Secondly, to design a play. If you've got a senior point guard like C.J. Watson, that's one thing. With a true freshman like Smith, additional instruction might have helped.
Pearl doesn't like to call timeouts in those situations. He defended his move against Ohio State.
``I promise you, you'd rarely get a better look than what we got,'' Pearl said. ``Ramar came down floor. Wayne was sealing hard on the post so there was some help (defense) taken away. Ramar split two defenders. There was contact, but he had enough of a move to the basket where he drew help and missed a shot he can make. As you know, Ramar can get in there and score in traffic.''
After Smith's miss, Chism couldn't convert the tip in.
Pearl said he felt with 11 seconds left, he wanted to ``take advantage of (Ohio State's) transition defense'' with the ball in Smith's hands.
Pearl argued that UT got two ``pretty good shots'' to tie the score.
```I've got to let my guys have freedom (to shoot), therefore, give them confidence,'' Pearl said. ``At the same time, let's say JaJuan Smith had a couple too deep or too early or just coming out of some bad runs.''
Pearl also said Childress, who hit a three earlier, was too deep on his second long attempt which was an air ball.
OSU's 7-foot freshman Greg Oden had 24 points and 15 rebounds compared to a combined seven points and six rebounds from Duke Crews and Chism. But Pearl praised the defensive effort of Chism, who held Oden to a couple of baskets, according to Pearl.
``Wayne Chism did a great job on Greg,'' said Pearl. ``That didn't get hardly any notice. Wayne is an excellent post defender. Oden got deeper on Duke because Duke isn't quite as big as Wayne in some areas. … The key to defending Oden is to keep your body on him and Wayne never left Oden's contact whereas Duke would get away.
``Wayne is a better defensive post player than Duke is and that was exposed.''
Pearl said Ohio State isn't playing its best basketball now, another reason the loss was disappointing.
Still, there were positives to be drawn.
``We honored the game on Saturday with how we played,'' Pearl said, applauding his team's effort. ``We represented the SEC well. Our team was picked sixth in the SEC and we played a team on its home floor picked one or two in the Big Ten.''
Now the Vols must regroup against Auburn on Wednesday and not let a two-game losing streak stretch to three.