UT follows the script

This is the time of year when a lot of reruns show up on TV ... and at Thompson-Boling Arena. Take Tuesday night, for instance.

Tennessee led Wyoming just 48-47 three minutes into the second half but the ninth-ranked Vols weren't worried. They know how this script ends - with them sprinting across the finish line and the opposing players gasping for breath as they struggle down the home stretch.

Sure enough, the Big Orange outscored the Cowboys 29-11 the rest of the way to prevail 77-58. Tennessee's depth, as usual, was the difference. All-America forward Tyler Smith admitted that the visitors appeared somewhat gassed at the finish.

"Kind of," Smith said. "But we were still running. We really weren't looking at how gassed they were. But, looking back on how bad they shot at the end - making shots in the first half and the second half they wasn't - I think we did wear 'em out."

Senior post Wayne Chism agreed. He thought the Cowboys were running on fumes in the closing minutes.

"They were," he said. "We slowed 'em down a little bit and we locked up on defense. We did a great job at that."

The numbers certainly support that assertion. Wyoming shot 46 percent in the first half, 26 percent in the second. The Cowboys scored 41 points in the first half, 17 in the second. Simply put, Wyoming wilted in the face of Tennessee's depth and defense.

"We wore 'em down, so we could take advantage of them defensively in the second half a little bit," coach Bruce Pearl said. "We stayed with pressure. I'd say it was a little of both (pressure and fatigue)."

The Cowboys shoot just 21 percent from 3, so they like to attack the rim. That's why they average 35.1 foul shots per game. Pearl decided to give Wyoming the 3-point shot in order to clog the lane. The strategy worked as the Cowboys made just 19 percent (4 of 21) from 3 and shot a mere 25 free throws, 10 below their season average.

"We didn't think Wyoming could beat us from 3 but we knew they could beat us from free," Pearl said. "And they're better from 2 than 3. They got some really good looks but we really tried to close the paint down."

Tennessee closed down the paint thanks to superior quickness and excellent defensive positioning.

"We took twice as many charges as we have in any game all season," Pearl said. "It was stressed in the scouting report, and the kids executed."

Tennessee's defense is far better than a year ago. Opponents are shooting 37.8 percent from the floor (down from 44.3 percent last season) and 27.5 percent from 3 (down from 33.7 last season).

"We've got a better understanding defensively," Pearl said. "I didn't know if we were going to be there defensively because it was going to take toughness, effort and execution. But I think after a year of being together they understand better what to do."

Chism and Smith always were good defenders. Several of their teammates have improved individually, making the Vols' team defense better as a whole.

"They had some good teachers in Tyler and Wayne," Pearl said, "but it was Bobby (Maze) getting better, Cameron (Tatum) getting better, Scotty (Hopson) getting better, Brian (Williams) getting better.

"We have some guys that really improved, and I know Tyler and Wayne appreciate that. They're not out there as the only high-IQ defensive players. Obviously, I think we're doing a better job."

The Vols were at their defensive best in the second half Tuesday night, really putting the clamps on Wyoming's offense.

"Everybody's quick, and it showed in the second half by only letting 'em score 17 points," Smith said. "Those guys came in wanting to make a statement, but we wanted to protect our home court ... show we can guard."

Mission accomplished.

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