Tennessee was riding its only three-game losing streak of the Pearl era last Jan. 20 when the Vols hosted South Carolina. All three losses were on the road (at Vanderbilt, at Ohio State, at Auburn) and all three were close (82-81, 68-66 and 83-80) but some fans were beginning to fret a bit. That made Pearl's pep talk prior to the South Carolina game vitally important. He had to keep the pessimism beginning to surface in the fan base from infecting his players.
With the SEC TV cameras rolling, Pearl set about calming the Vols' nerves and rebuilding their confidence. The first step in that quest was to establish that the game was not a "must-win" situation.
"It's all about getting better. That's all it's about," he said. "Every time out is an opportunity to get better. Some teams don't, and those teams fade. Some teams do, and those teams win championships. That's what it's all about.
"We take what we've got right now, and we throw it out there against South Carolina ... as long as we understand that, whatever we do today, tomorrow's got to get better, and the next day. We've got to keep building on it."
Mindful that his players had heard some of the negative rumblings that occurred during their three-game losing streak, Pearl touched briefly on that subject.
"Our mettle has been tested," he said. "We've lost a few games, and a bunch of people are panicking. Ain't nobody in this room panicking."
Sure enough, the Vols didn't panic. Despite a scoreless first half by All-America guard Chris Lofton, they led the Gamecocks 33-22 at intermission. Pearl opened his halftime talk with congratulations, then ordered his troops to play the final 20 minutes as if they were dealing with a double-digit deficit instead of a double-digit lead.
"Great job defensively," he said. "What are we down? We're down 10. We're not up nine. We're not up two. We're not up anything. We're down 10.
"What would our attitude in the locker room be right now if we were down 10? How would we be talking about guarding if we were down 10? How about rebounding if we're down 10? Let's start the second half like we're down 10. Great job. Twenty (minutes) to play."
Lofton hit two quick baskets at the start of the second half, then suffered a severe ankle sprain that would cause him to miss the game's final 18 minutes and 11 seconds. Still, the Vols didn't panic. They showed just enough poise to hang on for a 64-61 victory.