"This was a pretty gutsy win," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "There was a lot of pressure on the kids, knowing the schedule, how few home games we have and the tough road ahead."
There are no sure wins left on the schedule; that's for sure. The Vols play at South Carolina on Saturday and at Florida on Tuesday, host a Kentucky team that is ranked No. 3 nationally and an Arkansas team that is leading the SEC West, then close the regular season at Mississippi State.
Given what lies ahead, a home loss to Georgia would've been disastrous. That's where the Vols appeared headed, however, as they fell behind 21-13 early en route to a 29-24 halftime deficit. The head man was so upset that his halftime talk dripped sarcasm.
"After a sluggish first half where there was no chemistry or continuity offensively, I asked them if they enjoyed playing together for the first 20 minutes," Pearl said. "Then, before they could answer, I answered for them: Hopefully not."
Tennessee's first-half offense was almost comically inept. The Vols shot miserably from the field (36.7 percent), from 3 (12.5 percent) and from the foul line (20.0 percent). They had more turnovers (7) than assists (5) and managed just 24 points.
Pearl had no trouble pinpointing his team's first-half problems.
"We didn't do anything as a team to enjoy the basketball," he said. "We didn't screen, we didn't cut, we didn't move, we didn't space, we didn't pass. Defensively, we did OK."
Actually, the Vols played quite well defensively in the first half. Otherwise, they would've trailed by 15 at the break instead of five.
"My big thing," Pearl said, "was to come out in the second half and play better team basketball."
He got his wish. The Vols moved better, screened better, executed better and shot better. They hit 56.3 percent in the second half, recorded far more assists (11) than turnovers (3) and nearly doubled their first-half output by outscoring the Dawgs 45-31.
Wayne Chism led the Vols with 16 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals. Fellow seniors J.P. Prince (15 points, 7 rebounds) and Bobby Maze (13 points, 4 assists) also put up some good numbers. Scotty Hopson had an off night shooting - 5 of 13 from the field, including 0 of 3 from beyond the arc - but still finished with 10 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists.
Oddly enough, Tennessee led 52-50 late for the second game in a row. At Kentucky last Saturday the Vols were outscored 23-10 down the stretch and lost 73-62. Wednesday night it was the Vols who made the clutch plays down the stretch, however, extending the 52-50 lead by outscoring the Dawgs 17-10 over the final seven minutes.
And, for the second game in a row, the Vols ventured from the norm and played some zone defense. They couldn't man up against Georgia's Trey Thompkins (21 points) and Travis Leslie (19) in a 78-63 loss at Athens on Jan. 23, so Pearl figured he had nothing to lose. The zone wasn't much help against Thompkins, who scored 25 in Wednesday's rematch, but it seemed to frustrate Leslie, who picked up two early fouls and managed just 4 points in 25 minutes.
"We were fortunate in that early in the game we played a lot of zone, and it disrupted Georgia," Pearl said. "They had a hard time scoring against the zone. They had three baskets (against zone) in the first half and two of those were on offensive rebounds."
Pearl dramatically shuffled his lineup Wednesday night in hopes of curing his team's offensive doldrums. Melvin Goins got his first start of the year at the point, with Bobby Maze moving from point guard to shooting guard. J.P. Prince moved from small forward to power forward and Renaldo Woolridge dropped out of the starting five.
Still, Tennessee's offense was putrid for a half.
As Pearl put it: "Offensively we just had no rhythm, no balance, no feel at all. It was a real struggle."
The Vols found their rhythm in the second half, however, earning a hard-fought victory and a much-deserved sigh of relief.