Stayin' alive

It's amazing to think that Tennessee is still struggling to identify a point guard, still committing silly fouls, still waiting on Chris Lofton to get hot and still alive in the NCAA Tournament.

JaJuan Smith hit four clutch free throws in overtime and Tyler Smith made a key block to help Tennessee turn back Butler 76-71 in overtime in a second-round game in Birmingham.

The Vols (31-4) got revenge from losing to Butler (30-4) in the Preseason NIT a year ago. More importantly, they advanced to the Sweet 16 on Thursday to play Louisville and Rick Pitino.

It was the first time in the second round of the NCAA tourney that two 30-win teams met.

``It sounds so sweet,'' Pearl said of UT's first ever back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. ``It's where we've been trying to go. I'm very proud of my basketball team for doing what it's capable of doing.''

Proud and glad he won't have to see Butler, at least for a while. ``I'm so tired of seeing Butler,'' Pearl said. ``I left the Horizon League because of Butler. I don't want to see Butler anymore.''

Already in unchartered territory with 30-plus wins and a No. 1 ranking during the regular season, the Vols hope to make history in Charlotte by reaching the Elite Eight for the first time. UT has been to the Sweet 16 four times without advancing, blowing a 20-point lead against Ohio State last year.

As you might expect, beating Butler wasn't easy for the Vols. They led 21-8 early, saw Butler score seven in a row, stretched the lead back to 10, but then had a dog fight from that point on.

When it looked like Tennessee might pull away, Butler bounced back. The Bulldogs had a slow start from 3-point range, making 1-of-8, but then hit 5-of-6 as UT's defense softened, allowing Butler open looks from outside the arc.

You can't do that against a good shooting team. But then UT's defense picked up, and Butler finished 9-of-26 on 3-pointers as the Vols did a much better job in the second half of contesting the trey.

Guards A.J. Graves and Mike Green combined for 10-of-35 shooting, with Graves hitting just 3-of-12 from outside. Green was 1-of-4 from beyond the arc.

``We made them hit tough twos,'' Pearl said. ``We had a good feel for what we were doing defensively and we switched a lot.''

That was evidenced by Butler's 36 percent shooting.

But Pearl was flustered at times by UT leaving open outside shooters.

``We were not supposed to leave the shooter,'' Pearl said. ``If we left the shooter, it was a breakdown. (Pete) Campbell (who hit 6-of-8 treys in a first round game) was a no-leave guy the whole time. When you're switching, different guys are on him and maybe that guy wasn't paying attention during the eight times we went over it.''

Campbell was left open enough to score 12 points, but that was 14 fewer than his effort two days earlier against South Alabama.

While Butler has a veteran team that plays with great unity, Tennessee is still in search of finding the right pieces. The issue at point guard is disconcerting.

Jordan Howell has been in such a monumental shooting slump, Pearl took him out of the rotation in the 35th game of the season. Instead, he started 6-foot-8 J.P. Prince, who can't shoot outside and has limited ball handling skills in traffic.

Prince committed two key turnovers in the final minute of regulation, causing Pearl to bench Prince in favor of sophomore Ramar Smith, who has been a spot starter.

But Pearl defended Prince's play.

``When's the last time he had to close out a game at the point guard position?'' Pearl said. ``I probably should have taken him out earlier and let Ramar close out. But he had done such a wonderful job. I thought he made us better. We don't win the game without the contributions J.P. made at the point.''

Ramar Smith responded with two field goals in overtime.

JaJuan Smith, who had 11 points, put the game away with four free throws down the stretch.

But this game wouldn't have been so close had UT received better point guard play.

Can UT win a Sweet 16 game without steady leadership on the court?

It's doubtful.

Maybe Ramar Smith has gained enough confidence to get the job done. Maybe he won't get into foul trouble. Maybe he'll finish around the rim. Or maybe Prince will play the game of his life.

If not, UT is in trouble.

Prince can play the point in a half-court set, but he can't shoot outside and he doesn't handle the ball well in traffic. Sag off Prince and force him to go right and he becomes ineffective on offense.

Getting his first start at the point this season, Prince had nine points, seven rebounds, five assists and six turnovers. Most of his points came when he wasn't playing the point.

Tyler Smith had a solid game with 15 points, eight rebounds and a terrific block, but he had seven turnovers.

Wayne Chism had his second straight 16-point game.

Chris Lofton had his second consecutive subpar shooting game. UT's leading scorer had nine points after scoring five against American University.

But maybe that's a positive sign for the Vols.

They can win without Lofton being hot. They can win without handling the ball well – 20 turnovers against Butler. And they can win despite missing 10 free throws.

But can they win a Sweet 16 game with Prince at the point?


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