All's well that ends well

The 2009-10 Tennessee Vols may be notoriously slow starters but they're awfully effective finishers. If the game is close heading into the final minutes they're probably going to win.

Since losing to Purdue 73-72 on Nov. 23, the Vols have played nine games decided by nine points or less ... winning all nine. Most came down to a few clutch plays in the final minutes. Consider:

- Tied 64-all with 4:00 left, Tennessee outscored Kansas 12-4 to win 76-68 in Knoxville.

- Down 49-54 with 7 minutes left, Tennessee outscored Ole Miss 22-15 thereafter to win 71-69 in overtime at Knoxville.

- Up 56-53 with 1:22 left, Tennessee outscored Alabama 7-3 to win 63-56 in Tuscaloosa.

- Tied 57-all with a minute left, Tennessee outscored Florida 4-3 to win 61-60 in Knoxville.

- Up 55-54 with 18 seconds left, Tennessee outscored LSU 4-0 to win 59-54 in Baton Rouge.

- Down 49-50 with 8-plus minutes left, Tennessee outscored Georgia 20-10 to win 69-60 in Knoxville.

- Up 51-49 with 7:00 left, Tennessee outscored South Carolina 12-6 the rest of the way to win 63-55 in Columbia.

- Tied 65-65 with 2:00 left, Tennessee scored the game's final nine points to beat Kentucky 74-65 in Knoxville.

This season's success in the clutch is in stark contrast to last season, when Tennessee lost six games decided by eight points or less and another game in overtime. So, why are the Vols so much better at crunch time this season?

"Superior coaching," head coach Bruce Pearl said with a laugh.

Turning serious, the coach noted that getting stops and getting the ball in the hands of Bobby Maze has been the winning edge for this year's team in late-game situations.

"We're a much better defensive team than last year," Pearl said. "We do have the ball in Bobby's hands at the end of the game, and Bobby has proven to be a pretty good game-closing player."

Maze isn't the only player who has come through late, however. Fellow senior J.P. Prince scored six of UT's last nine points in last Saturday's upset of No. 2 Kentucky.

"J.P. has won games with his defense at the end of games," Pearl said. "He's won games with his rebounding. He's won games at the foul line. You put the ball in your seniors' hands. That's where it goes."

Pearl had two first-year starters at guard last season, which helps explain Tennessee's inability to close out victories in 2008-09. Backcourt experience is essential in the clutch, as the Vols proved in Pearl's first three years at the helm.

"We won a lot of games with C.J. Watson and won a lot of games with Chris Lofton because you put the ball in the guards' hands and let 'em make plays," the coach noted. "Bobby's done a really nice job with that. He handles pressure. We don't turn the ball over, and we're an improved defensive team."


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