Follow the leaders

Tennessee's basketball team will go as far this March as its senior class can take it. That might be farther than many observers expect.

Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince and Bobby Maze have fewer games left than their teammates but they also have greater incentive. There is no "next year" for them. If they are to experience a magical March, it needs to happen now.

Convinced that the three of them can bring this season to a memorable conclusion, Prince recently pleaded his case to head coach Bruce Pearl.

Here's the gist of that conversation, as Prince's recalls it:

"I told him last week, 'Just ride us to death. Let us play. Put it on us, and we can lead the way. Me and Wayne have been through the battles, and Bobby's been through a lot of wars. Let me and Wayne lead the way. We've been here a long time, we've seen everything. Ride us through this last stretch.'"

Pearl concurred, essentially telling the three seniors that they need to provide the winning edge - offensively and defensively - the rest of the season. The trio apparently took the words to heart, based on their play in Saturday's 74-65 upset of No. 2 Kentucky.

Chism played 32 minutes through ankle and hip injuries, limiting Big Blue All-American Patrick Patterson to 10 points and 5 rebounds. Maze committed just 1 turnover at the point, while forcing 5 by UK counterpart John Wall. Prince stepped up most of all, scoring a team-high 20 points.

Pearl admits that he put the season on the shoulders of his upperclassmen last week, adding: "When you've got seniors like Wayne, J.P. and Bobby, they accepted ... they took ownership. But the point I wanted to make to them was that it was not just about them. It was about our team."

The trio apparently got that message loud and clear. When Kentucky made an 11-0 spurt that trimmed a 19-point second-half deficit to 54-46 on Saturday, the seniors helped the Vols keep their poise.

"The key was our senior leadership," sophomore Scotty Hopson recalled. "Wayne got us together and said, 'Guys, keep your heads up and be confident. We're going to get this victory. If we just stick to playing defense and rebounding, we'll do well.' That's what we stuck to doing, and we got the win."

Once Kentucky completed its 11-0 run, the three seniors combined to score Tennessee's next nine points. Prince assisted Chism for a layup, then made a free throw of his own. Maze followed with a couple of clutch drives and Prince broke free for a dunk.

Still, the Cats kept scratching and clawing. When they finally pulled even at 65-all, Pearl took a timeout with 2:06 remaining. If the three seniors were going to take over, their time was at hand. They responded.

"Everybody was quiet," Chism said of the Vol huddle. "We was just listening. We wasn't panicking or nothing."

Hopson agreed, noting: "When Kentucky tied it up, a couple of guys put their heads down like 'Dang.' But our senior leadership kept us together. We stayed strong, kept our heads high and said, 'We're going to win this game.' Then we made plays and won this game."

Indeed. When play resumed Tennessee's senior-laden lineup dominated Kentucky's freshman-laden lineup.

Prince broke the 65-all tie with a reverse layup. Then, after a huge 3-pointer by Hopson, Prince drained four clutch free throws in the final 24 seconds to seal the deal.

Clearly, the experience and poise of the seniors was critical as the Vols outscored the Cats 9-0 over the game's final two minutes.

"You've got to man up," Prince said. "You know they're going to come back eventually, so you've got to make plays."

Ultimately, Tennessee's upset of Kentucky could be attributed to its senior class and its mental toughness.

"It was a combination of both," Hopson said. "We've grown so much as a basketball team, become so much tougher and more mature."

That toughness and maturity might carry the Vols deep into March if Chism, Prince and Maze continue to lead the charge.

"Coach put it on the seniors," Prince said. "That's all I wanted.... If these coaches allow us to make plays, we'll do it for them."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories