Late lapses lead to losses

Point A: Tennessee has outscored each of its six SEC opponents in the first half. Point B: Tennessee has been outscored by five of the six in the second half. Point C: Tennessee has lost four of the six games because of Point B.

The numbers are downright staggering: Tennessee led Mississippi State (49-42), Vanderbilt (40-37), Auburn (38-29), South Carolina (33-22), Ole Miss (38-28) and Kentucky (32-31). That's a combined first-half score of 230-189 ... or plus-41 points.

Except for outscoring Mississippi State 43-42 in the second half, the Vols have been outplayed over the final 20 minutes by their SEC foes. Vandy won the second half 45-41, Auburn 54-42, South Carolina 39-31, Ole Miss 55-31 and Kentucky 45-25. That's a combined score of 280-213 ... minus-67 points.

Bottom line: UT's average first-half score in its six conference games to date was 39-31. It's average second-half score in the same games was 35-47.

Obviously, the drop from 39 first-half points to 35 second-half points is only a mild concern. However, allowing opponents to boost their scoring average from 31 first-half points to 47 second-half points is a serious problem.

Part of the answer may lie in Tennessee's inexperience. The Vols use a very young lineup – starting at least two freshmen and sometimes three. Still, you wonder: How can the rookies do a good job defensively in the first half, then get lit up in the second half?

"We don't have 'em in front of our bench, defensively," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "That hurts a young team. We're able to help them from the bench (in the first half) with communicating and getting through certain things. That's a fact."

Another factor helping opponents pile up second-half points has been Tennessee's recent tendency to run out of gas down the stretch. Ole Miss outscored the Vols 39-18 over the final 11 minutes in Game 20. Kentucky outscored the Vols 29-11 over the final 10 minutes in Game 21.

After conceding that his team is playing with "good intensity," Pearl noted: "At some point there has to be a step-up to another level, another gear. We're playing at a pretty high level to begin with. I don't know if there is another gear."

If the Vols do have another gear, they aren't taking it with them on the road. In their four SEC away games they have been outscored 199-139 in the second half. That's an average margin of 15 points (50-35).

A possible explanation: When the home team starts making a run, Tennessee has been unable to stem the momentum with a few crowd-silencing baskets.

Pearl noted that the Vols' SEC opponents have been able to find that extra gear, perhaps because "they're playing at home and the crowd is a factor or because they're a little deeper or because they're a little bit more experienced."

Or maybe the answer is all of the above.

Regardless, the potential return of injured All-American Chris Lofton could provide an extra gear for Tennessee in Wednesday night's game with visiting Georgia. Pearl concedes the point.

"He is an important other gear," the coach said. "But that's not an excuse (for the recent setbacks). That's because he's an All-American on a team that's obviously not real deep. He's our go-to guy, and we don't have another go-to option."

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