UT wins, Pearl fumes

After Tennessee whipped No. 20 Florida by 22 points earlier this week, Vols coach Bruce Pearl complained about his team's defensive lapses and inability to finish plays around the rim.

Surely he was just trying to keep his team grounded. He didn't want his players to get too full of themselves after a program-best 20-2 start. He didn't want complacency to set in.

After Tennessee's narrow escape 47-45 at LSU on Saturday, he was at it again, this time focusing his criticism on the team's half-court offense.

But this time, he wasn't just trying to keep his team grounded.

His rants were legit.

``I'm not happy,'' Pearl said. ``Our offensive execution was as bad as it's been in three years. If we didn't draw it up, diagram it, time out it, it didn't happen. There were no continuity baskets and we were standing around. You win games out of fast breaks and continuity and we're getting nothing out of the fast break.

``That's not how I like to coach. We had one fast break basket and it was the last one. That's ridiculous, just absolutely ridiculous.''

Pearl didn't fault his team's effort. He pointed to 22 offensive rebounds and 22 forced turnovers.

But the half-court execution had Pearl bristling.

``One thing about effort, when we exert effort on defense, we rest on offense,'' Pearl said. ``We're not cutting, not moving, not screening. Our bench was very disappointing. The bench was afraid to fail and we can't have that.''

Pearl said the Vols can't play to their potential if centers Duke Crews and Brian Williams don't play with more consistency. He could say the same for Wayne Chism, who has a tendency to disappear during games.

That's why Pearl wasn't happy even though his team improved to 21-2. That's why he wasn't happy even though he's 4-1 in the SEC on the road, 3-0 against the West. He wasn't happy that it took a late steal and layup to beat a 1-7 team.

It does say something for a team to play poorly and still win.

Tennessee won because of 22 offensive rebounds and 13 steals. In won in spite of poor shooting from the field and the foul line, and nine blocked shots by LSU. It won in spite of 1-for-16 shooting by guards Ramar Smith, Jordan Howell and JaJuan Smith. It won in spite of poor point guard play.

It won because an ill JaJuan Smith – he had the flu and was running a 101-degree temperature – inserted himself into the game with 20 seconds left. Smith then stole the ball from Marcus Thornton and drove for the game-winning layup with 12 seconds left. A stifling Tennessee defense forced a bad 3-point attempt by Alex Ferrar and Chris Johnson's follow dunk was a split second too late.

It was close to becoming arguably the biggest upset at LSU since the Tigers beat a top-ranked Kentucky team 29 years ago in overtime after all five starters fouled out.

LSU was short handed again. It didn't have its best player, Tasmin Mitchell, out for the season with a foot injury. It didn't have one other starter who is out for the season for academic reasons.

And it didn't have its coach, John Brady, who was fired two years after guiding the Tigers to a Final Four. Brady won two SEC titles and had three seasons of at least 12 SEC wins, but the other eight years, he was .500 or below, including three seasons of four or fewer conference wins.

It was ironic that JaJuan Smith hit the game winner. Pearl wanted Smith in the game earlier, but he couldn't go. Pearl told Smith to go in when he felt up to it.

Smith, criticized for his hot-dog play two weeks ago against Alabama, raced by Pearl to check in with 20 seconds left. He got the steal, the layup and the win. It was his only basket of the game. He had been 0-for-7.

``JaJuan Smith played heroically,'' Pearl said.

That's about the only praise Pearl dished out.

LSU figured it had a chance to upset the No. 7 team in the country by keeping the score in the 60s. The Tigers did better than that. They held Tennessee to 27 first-half points and limited the Vols to 31.7 percent shooting from the field (19 of 60). UT also shot just 4-of-15 at the foul line, missing their last five of the game.

But LSU wasn't much better from the field. The Tigers hit 40 percent from the field, 25 percent in the second half, made 2-of-4 free throws, and SEC-leading scorer Marcus Thornton was held to 12 points, eight below his average.

''LSU came out and played hard and fought to the end,'' said UT's Chris Lofton, who had a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds. ``We didn't really play our best game, and I wish we could have closed it better in the end, but we won and that's all that matters.''

It may be all that matters, but Pearl sees tougher times ahead if Tennessee doesn't shore up its half-court offense.

``If Chris doesn't hit a 3 or Tyler doesn't score inside or JaJuan doesn't make a steal, we don't score,'' Pearl complained.

``Our point guards played as poorly as we've played that position all year long.

``It's great to get out of here with a win and it's great to be 21-2. But if I'm Arkansas and I'm watching that game, holy cow, am I excited about playing (UT) Wednesday night.''

Pearl has given his team a warning.

We'll find out Wednesday night if they listened.

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