"A lot of those turnovers were really unforced," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "Gonzaga's zone bothered us. It's the zone Louisville played a year ago (in bouncing Tennessee from the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16)."
As Louisville did last March, Gonzaga rigged its zone to take away the high post. This is the place Vol All-American Tyler Smith operates and the place most of Tennessee's offense runs through.
"They took Tyler away with the middle of the defense," Pearl said, "and then we got standing around."
Moreover, Gonzaga managed to get dozens of points in transition, while basically shutting down Tennessee's fast break all night.
"You've got to be able to continue to run the fast break against the zone," Pearl said. "Part of the problem is our point guards dominate the ball. They don't advance-pass it up to the wings. And we don't dribble-penetrate against the zone like we need to."
With Tennessee standing around on offense, the Vols found themselves trailing 74-56 with 5:09 remaining. Just when they appeared on the verge of losing big, they found their aggressiveness.
First, Smith made a free throw. Next, Scotty Hopson drained a 3-point bomb from the left wing. J.P. Prince and Smith made traditional three-point plays. Brian Williams scored on a reverse layup, then Cameron Tatum bagged a 3 from the right corner – capping a 15-3 explosion that narrowed the gap to 77-71 with 1:32 to play.
After a miss by Gonzaga, Tennessee got the ball on the rim four times on its ensuing possession but could not score. The Zags then sealed the victory at the free-throw line.
"We panicked," Pearl said. "We panicked, defensively ... fouling. We panicked offensively ... turning it over."
Tennessee's starting lineup struggled from the field. Tyler Smith led Tennessee with 17 points but made just 6 of 16 shots. Cameron Tatum, making his first start, sank just 2 of 9 from the floor and finished with 6 points. Bobby Maze (3 of 10) had 6 points, Renaldo Woolridge (2 of 6) had 6 points and Wayne Chism (1 of 4) added 5 points.
Two players contributed significantly in reserve roles. Hopson (6 of 12) chipped in 16 points while Brian Williams grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds – 8 off the offensive glass – to go with 6 points.
Steven Gray came off the bench to score 19 points for Gonzaga, which hit 58 percent of its shots in the second half, including 5 of 7 from beyond the arc. Matt Bouldin contributed 17 points and Josh Heytvelt 15. Micah Downs added 12 points, while All-America point guard Jeremy Pargo chipped in 10 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists.
Tennessee gets back in action Wednesday night, hosting UNC-Asheville at 7 o'clock.