Vols find a way ... barely

Maybe it was the fear of going from No. 1 in the nation to No. 2 in the East Division.

Maybe it was the magic of former Vols Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King.

Maybe it was Chris Lofton not wanting to lose to Kentucky on the day he was honored.

Or maybe it was just luck.

Whatever it was, Tennessee escaped with an unimpressive but much-needed 63-60 victory over short-handed but spunky Kentucky to maintain a one-game lead in the overall SEC race and a two-game cushion in the East Division.

The win clinched the No. 1 seed for Tennessee in the upcoming SEC Tournament. It ensured the Vols won't fall out of the top five in Monday's polls. It kept them in the driver's seat for the program's first outright SEC title in 41 years.

But it didn't leave you thinking Tennessee is ready for post season play.

Far from it.

In fact, it left you with more questions. Will Jordan Howell ever hit another three? Is the point guard play efficient enough to make a run in the NCAA Tournament? Is the inside game strong enough? Does UT have any players that can hit from the perimeter when Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith go cold or can't get open?

Despite winning the East Division championship, Tennessee is not playing at a championship level. Wayne Chism would argue that the Vols are. Tyler Smith will tell you they're not.

Tyler Smith is right.

Granted Tennessee is 26-3, 12-2 in the SEC, and the Vols have emerged from a difficult stretch against No. 1 Memphis, unbeaten at home Vanderbilt and always tough Kentucky with a 2-1 record. But each game was close and UT didn't dictate tempo in either one or shot well from the outside – the Vols are hitting less than 30 percent from long range in the last three games.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl spent a lot of time in the post-game locker room with his team. Maybe he congratulated them on clinching the No. 1 East seed. Or maybe he told them that if they want to win the SEC outright, they better pick it up. Pearl tried to put a positive spin on the win, pointing to the team's poise down the stretch.

``We love to play games in the 90s or 80s,'' Pearl said. ``We love to press. But we can win in the 60s. We can beat you at your game or our game. You decide.''

Kentucky almost beat Tennessee at Kentucky's game in a contest that should not have been this close.

Kentucky was without its terrific freshman center, Patrick Patterson (stress fracture), who was averaging 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds. It was without guard Jodie Meeks (hip flexor). Leading scorer Joe Crawford got into early foul trouble.

I mistakenly picked Tennessee to win by at least 15. At least the Vols led by 15 (20-5). I should have known better. The Vols hadn't beaten the Wildcats by double digits since a 22-point win in 1992.

But when the Vols took a commanding early lead, I thought the rout was on.

Instead, Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie did a masterful job getting his team back in the game. The Wildcats chipped away until they cut the margin to five last in the first half by controlling tempo, milking the shot clock and going to an unorthodox zone defense.

During parts of the second half, Kentucky clogged the middle with a three-man zone and put pressure on wing players Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. The results: UT didn't hit a three, Smith didn't score and Lofton had to work hard for his lone field goal in the final 20 minutes.

``They were playing off us, backing off and building a wall,'' Pearl said. ``With the exception of Chris and JaJuan, we have a lot of guys who are not confident on the perimeter. Will teams back off some more? Perhaps.''

You bet they will. Pearl said he might need to get the ball more to Chism on the outside, since he seems to be one of the few – outside of Lofton and JaJuan – capable of hitting a three.

``That's one of those woulda, shoulda, couldas,'' Pearl said.

Another one is figuring out what to do at the point. Howell has made 2 of his last 23 field-goal attempts. Ramar Smith is still missing too much around the rim.

Pearl tried 6-8 J.P. Prince at the point with little success.

Former Tennessee coach Don DeVoe doesn't think Prince can play the position.

``If Prince is a point guard,'' DeVoe said, ``I'm a Chinese Aviator.''

That leaves Tennessee in need of Ramar Smith finding his game and Howell finding his range.

Otherwise, the Vols might get trapped into another low-scoring affair.

Yet, Pearl sounded as if he didn't think folks were giving his team enough credit for the win, even though Kentucky was without Patterson.

``Not one of my guys turned down a scholarship offer from Kentucky,'' Pearl said.

Surely he wasn't insinuating Kentucky is more talented than Tennessee, because it's not. Maybe he was saying Kentucky still has good players in spite of some injuries.

Pearl was asked if his team has flattened out.

``Wait and see,'' he said. ``Stay tuned.''

He said it with the conviction of a coach who doesn't buy that premise.

But Pearl knows his team can play better.

``Some of this stuff is we're in unchartered territory,'' Pearl said. ``I'm hoping after this game we can relax a little bit.''

Tennessee certainly couldn't relax against Kentucky.

On a day when Ernie Grunfled (6-2 against UK) had his number 22 retired and Bernard King (5-1 against UK) was in the house, Lofton didn't want to disappoint.

Lofton wanted the ball late and he got it. In the final two minutes, he split a pair of free throws to give UT a four-point lead and he hit a floater over Ramel Bradley – the man UK took instead of Lofton in recruiting – for a 3-point lead. It was enough to repel Kentucky's terrific comeback.

And it was enough to send Ernie and Bernie home with another win over the Wildcats.


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