Tennessee's 66-62 victory at FedEx Forum didn't produce as many points as most observers expected but it produced enough drama and thrills to easily offset that shortcoming. Ultimately, this game was just about everything it was cracked up to be.
Speaking on his post-game show, over-the-top Vol head coach Bruce Pearl tried very hard to be low-key. He showed unprecedented restraint in referring to the game, which is sure to vault UT into the No. 1 national ranking for the first time in program history, as "a good win."
After considerable chiding, Pearl eventually conceded that the nationally televised shootout was "spectacular," adding that his team had achieved "a great win for the University of Tennessee ... We represented Coach (Pat) Summitt, Coach (Phillip) Fulmer and all the student-athletes."
The Southeastern Conference has produced the past two national champions – Florida in 2006 and 2007. Now Tennessee is atop the national rankings, further enhancing the SEC's growing reputation as a truly elite basketball league.
"We represented the SEC," Pearl noted. "We made the league proud by showing we could go on the road and win in a very difficult environment."
The Vol coach told his players before the game they were 40 minutes away from being No. 1. He told them at halftime they were 20 minutes away. During a late-game timeout, he returned to the theme once more.
"Then it was five minutes away from being No. 1 in the country," he said, "and obviously they delivered."
Tennessee delivered, all right. Vol post players dominated Memphis' towering front line, helping UT outscore the Tigers 38-18 in the paint and outrebound them 50-34. Pearl called the Vols' backboard play "relentless."
The Vols won on a night when their strengths – shooting the 3, dishing out assists and forcing turnovers – were non-factors. Tennessee made just 6 of 19 from beyond the arc, recorded just 14 assists (five below their season's average) and forced a mere 11 turnovers (nine below their season's average).
Tennessee won on a night when its heralded backcourt misfired with alarming regularity. Chris Lofton (2 of 11), JaJuan Smith (3 of 8), Ramar Smith (2 of 9), Jordan Howell (0 of 3) and Josh Tabb (0 of 1) combined to sink just 7 of 32 field-goal tries. While the guards fizzled, however, the forwards sizzled. Tyler Smith (6 of 11), Wayne Chism (5 of 11), J.P. Prince (5 of 8) and Duke Crews (1 of 2) combined to make 17 of 32 shots and account for 45 of Tennessee's 66 points.
Moreover, the Vols won with just 7 points from their All-American, Lofton, who scored 34 in last season's defeat of Memphis at Knoxville.
"They held him the entire game," Pearl grumbled. "We couldn't get him open, and he couldn't get himself open. He has 34 a year ago to beat 'em. Tonight he has whatever he has and we still beat 'em. That's a great sign of a team with terrific resiliency."
Pearl now stands 64-5 when UT is leading or tied entering the last 5 minutes of a game. The Vols led 58-57 Saturday night at the five-minute mark but trailed 61-58 with 2:28 to go. Tennessee outscored Memphis 8-1 down the stretch, however, to notch a dramatic and historic victory.
"It's amazing how a few plays at the end turned No. 2 into No. 1," Pearl said.
And it's amazing how close Saturday night's game came to living up to the hype.