Maybe it was the fact the Vols had lost 17 of their previous 18 games at Coleman Coliseum. Maybe it was the fact they had lost their previous road game (at Kentucky) and were determined to play harder. Maybe it was the fact they needed a win to pull into a first-place tie with Florida in the SEC East.
Whatever the reason, Tennessee's players were wound a little too tight for the first 20 minutes Tuesday night. Pearl routinely tells his troops to "Play fast but don't rush." The Vols ignored this advice vs. Bama, playing the first half as if there was a 15-second shot clock, instead of a 35-second shot clock. The result: 12 first-half turnovers by a team that averages just 12.5 turnovers per game.
"We try to play helter-skelter DEFENSIVELY," Pearl said on his post-game show. "We played so hard in this game. We played with such effort ... such energy. But offensively we were rushing. We were playing offensively like we were trying to guard.
"It was crazy. I couldn't get them to settle down. I couldn't get them to run the offense and get some spacing and be calm with the ball. Rush ... rush ... rush ... rush ... rush."
In addition to raising Tennessee's turnover count, rushing lowered the Vols' shooting percentage. With no offensive flow whatsoever, they sank a chilly 31 percent of their first-half shots.
Tied 33-33 at intermission, Tennessee came out a different team in the second half. Following the coach's orders, the Vols played fast without rushing. The result was 69-percent shooting (18 of 26) from the field and 75-percent shooting (9 of 12) from beyond the arc. They also hit 15 of their first 17 second-half foul shots before Jordan Howell missed a pair with just 2.6 seconds left. The result was a 60-point second half and a 93-86 victory.
"The second half, when they brought their offense in front of our bench, we shoot 69 percent and make 9 for 12 from 3," Pearl noted. "And we make all of the foul shots when they count. We missed the last two free throws but we were 15 for 19 from the foul line in the second half."
Basically, the Vols' second-half rally could be traced to the fact they (1) stopped rushing and (2) started running the offense through Tyler Smith. Setting up near the free-throw line – in the middle of Bama's 2-3 zone – Smith picked it apart with nifty drives and pinpoint passes.
"In a way that did calm us down offensively," Pearl said. "It allowed us to get some spacing.... Getting the ball in the middle of the defense to Tyler Smith was huge. He obviously did a great job of kicking it inside-out, and our seniors (Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Jordan Howell) made big shots."
Lofton hit three 3-pointers and an 18-footer in the final 10 minutes. JaJuan Smith hit three 3s in the final 5 minutes. Howell hit a clutch 3 at the 5:26 mark after Bama had closed to 72-70.