"This place is not real bright, as far as the lighting is concerned," the coach quipped. "Maybe our guys couldn't see 'em (open teammates) down the floor."
Middle Tennessee's entire game plan seemed to revolve around shutting down the Vols' transition attack and forcing them to play a half-court game. It worked, too, as the Blue Raiders gave Tennessee virtually no points in transition.
"I think they only sent a couple to the offensive boards," Pearl noted. "I think they really just got back and said, 'We're not going to let you guys beat us down the floor, beat us in transition. That's where you're good.'"
Another factor that limited UT's fast-break opportunities was the lack of impact its full-court press had on the Blue Raiders' guard-oriented lineup. Tennessee forced just nine turnovers, 20 fewer than in last year's 109-40 romp at Knoxville.
With their transition game stalled, however, the Vols won with superior work on the backboards and at the free throw line. Tennessee outrebounded Middle 38-23 and hit 20 of 26 foul shots, compared to the Blue Raiders' 12 of 25.
Ultimately, the game served its purpose: The Vols managed to pass their first road test of 2008-09.
"This game here is going to help us get a road win in the SEC," Pearl said. "You don't start off (playing on the road) at a top-25. You start off someplace like this. A lot of people don't want to play these games (road tests vs. in-state programs) because you have so much to lose and nothing to gain, but I think we had a lot to gain."
For one thing, the Vols (3-0) learned they can win when their transition game is sidetracked. They learned they can win when their ball-handling is sloppy (16 turnovers). They learned they can win when they attempt just eight 3-point shots (making four). And they learned they can win with virtually no production from the post position. Wayne Chism (8 points) and Brian Williams (1 point) played just 17 minutes each due to foul trouble.
Tyler Smith led Tennessee with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Point guard Bobby Maze contributed 12 points. J.P. Prince, making his first start of the season, chipped in 10. Freshman Scotty Hopson also scored 10, all in the first half. Josh Tabb chipped in 7 points and some excellent work as the backup point guard.
Demetrius Green scored 17 points to pace Middle Tennessee, which slips to 2-1. Nigel Johnson added 13 and Kevin Kanaskie 11. Desmond Yates, averaging 19.5 points per game, picked up two fouls in the game's first 1:40 and wound up scoring just 8 points before fouling out.
Tennessee trailed 26-25 late in the first half, then made a 10-0 spurt to go up 35-26. Chism opened the run with a follow shot, then Hopson drained an 18-footer and a pair of 3s – all from the left wing.
Middle closed to 36-32 by intermission and pulled even at 38 early in the second half. Tennessee spurted again at this point, making a 13-2 run to go up 51-40. Smith scored in transition, then Maze hit a 10-footer and a free throw. Tabb sank a layup and a three-point play off Tyler Smith assists, then closed the rally with a 3 from the key.
The Blue Raiders pulled within six points a couple of times in the final three minutes but Maze hit two clutch free throws each time as the Vols held on down the stretch.
Ultimately, Tennessee's performance was uneven but victorious.
"We grounded out," Pearl conceded. "We didn't play great but the opponent had a lot to do with it."