Vols thinking small

Big numbers are nice but small numbers can produce victories, too. Just ask the Tennessee Vols, who have won their last three games by allowing 60, 54 and 53 points.

The Big Orange has been forcing opponents to put up some especially small numbers from 3-point range lately. Florida shot just 25.0 percent (4 of 16) in losing 61-60 on Jan. 31. LSU shot 21.7 (5 of 23) in losing 59-54 on Feb. 4 and South Carolina shot 25.0 percent (7 of 28) in losing 79-53 on Saturday.

Tennessee's defense has been especially tough at the start of games. The Vols allowed a season-low 16 first-half points vs. LSU, then matched that number Saturday vs. Carolina.

As fans are acutely aware, the Big Orange offense has been hit or miss - mostly miss - all season long. Tennessee made just 38.5 percent of its shots vs. Florida and 40 percent vs. LSU but won both games by playing stingy defense.

"The defense is a constant," head coach Bruce Pearl said following Saturday night's 79-53 defeat of South Carolina. "Teams take on the identity of their best player, and Wayne (Chism) has got this team defending."

Chism, a 6-9, 245-pound senior, is one of the NCAA's premier post defenders. He sets a determined defensive tone that the other Vols have picked up on.

"That's the way we built our identity at the start of the season," Chism said. "We stopped a lot of people."

Indeed. Tennessee (18-4) has held 18 of its first 22 opponents below 50 percent shooting, winning 17 of the 18 games. The only team to beat UT making less than half of its shots was Purdue, which hit 44.6 percent en route to a 73-72 win.

Conversely, the Vols have allowed four teams to shoot better than 50 percent, losing three of the four. The only exception was East Carolina, which hit 52.6 percent but doomed itself with 35 turnovers.

"The games we lost teams shot 50 percent," Chism noted. "We've picked that (defensive intensity) back up and said that nobody's going to shoot 50 percent on us again, so we have to go out and play good defense."

Pearl was really encouraged by his team's defensive efforts vs. LSU and South Carolina the past two games, especially in the opening 20 minutes.

"That's the second team we've held to 16 points in the first half," he noted. "The difference (vs. the Gamecocks) was that we did a good job of maintaining the defensive effort at the other end."

After limiting LSU to 30.5-percent shooting and Carolina to 27.6 percent in its last two outings, Tennessee should be feeling good about itself heading into Tuesday night's game at Vanderbilt.

"A lot of my young guys got a lot of confidence now," Chism said. "We're going to let them use that confidence going into the next game."

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