The youthful Vols of '09 don't seem to grasp this concept because, despite superior size and athleticism, they struggle to make crucial stops in late-game situations.
- Leading 71-70 with two minutes left in Game 13 vs. Gonzaga, Tennessee allowed 7-footer Josh Heytvelt to twice get open under the basket. He converted one opportunity into a layup and the other into a free throw that enabled the Zags to forge a 73-all tie. Another UT defensive lapse allowed Matt Bouldin to get off a six-foot bank shot just before the regulation buzzer. The Vols were lucky; he missed. They were not so lucky in overtime, however. More defensive lapses enabled Gonzaga to hit 3 of 3 field goals and 9 of 10 free throws in OT en route to an 89-79 win that snapped UT's 37-game home winning streak.
- Tied 71-all with 2:31 left in Game 19 vs. LSU, the Vols watched Marcus Thornton blow by them for a crucial three-point play. Tennessee got beat on three more late-game drives – each time committing a foul – and LSU converted the ensuing free throws into a 79-73 victory.
- Leading 75-71 with two minutes left Saturday against an inferior Auburn team, Tennessee's inability to get a late-game stop again proved decisive. The offensively challenged Tigers scored seven points in the final 1:50 to steal a 78-77 win.
Bottom line: One late stop in each of those games and Tennessee would be 17-5 overall and 7-1 in SEC play, instead of 14-8 and 5-3.
"You've got as much of a chance to win a game on defense as you do on offense," head coach Bruce Pearl said this week. "I don't think our guys have a real feel, a clue or an understanding that that's the case. A stop and a rebound is as big a winning play as who makes the last shot."
Even in victory, Tennessee's late-game defense has been shaky at times. Last week's 74-72 win at Arkansas is a perfect example.
"Bobby Maze makes the last shot (a jumper with 5.4 seconds left) against Arkansas, and it gets a lot of play," Pearl noted. "That's great. But down at the other end the kid (Stefan Welsh) got to the rim and (Michael Washington) got an offensive rebound. They got two shots at it (tying the score) but they didn't make the shots."
Tennessee's late-game defense probably bottomed out Saturday at Auburn, causing the Big Orange to lose despite shooting a sizzling 59 percent from the floor. Pearl clearly is frustrated that his young players fail to display the same focus on defense that they do on offense in the late stages of close games.
"They could be won with a defensive rebound," he said. "They could be won with a steal. They could be won with a missed shot, a rebound and a foul. That's how it's worked."
That's where film of the 2005-06 Vols might come in handy. That squad beat national champ Florida twice thanks to late-game stops. Here's a brief history lesson:
With the Knoxville meeting tied 76-76 in the final half-minute, UT's Chris Lofton foiled a 2-on-1 Florida fast break with a nifty interception. Lofton then heaved a long pass to Dane Bradshaw for a tie-breaking layup. Tennessee got another clutch stop on Florida's ensuing possession and Lofton sealed the win with a pair of free throws.
Tied 72-72 with 18 seconds left in the rematch at Gainesville, Florida appeared to be in great shape with the ball out of bounds at sidecourt. Tennessee disrupted the inbounds pass, however, then Bradshaw scooped up the loose ball and drove for the go-ahead bucket. Tennessee got another stop on Florida's ensuing possession and Lofton again sealed the win with two free throws.
Bradshaw was a 6-3 power forward, Lofton a 6-1 guard. Neither was overly quick or athletic, yet each had a knack for making clutch defensive plays in late-game situations. The 2008-09 Vols appear to lack this knack, and that doomed them last Saturday at Auburn.
Pearl concedes as much, noting: "I think we could've closed that game out on a number of occasions on the defensive end."