March 4, 2006
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl isn't sure how his team won a division title in his first year.
"Can you make heads or tails as to why this team is (SEC) Eastern champions?," Pearl said after No. 11 Tennessee beat Vanderbilt 68-59 on Saturday. "I don't have it figured out."
Tennessee (21-6, 12-4) was forced to rally from a 16-point second-half deficit, and it won the game in uncharacteristic fashion. The league's worst defensive team beat Vanderbilt with one of its best defensive performances of the season. The Vols held Vanderbilt to a season-low 33 percent shooting and forced 12 second-half turnovers.
"Coming into this game, we knew we had to play better defense," said guard C.J. Watson, who scored 11 points and had five rebounds. "We didn't play good defense our last two games, so we made it our main focus today."
On the offensive side, Tennessee's best shooter Chris Lofton was just 2-for-11 from three-point range, but he managed 21 points.
"They did a great job of taking the three-point line away, but to his credit, (Lofton) takes it off the bounce and scores," Pearl said.
Lofton's biggest basket of the game was a 3-pointer with 1:09 to play that gave Tennessee a 62-57 lead. It was part of a game-closing 14-4 run for the Vols, who swept Vanderbilt on the season.
Shan Foster led Vanderbilt (16-11, 7-9) with 15 points and DeMarre Carroll had 10 points and 11 rebounds. Julian Terrell scored 10 points.
Tennessee trailed 37-21 early in the second half but turned up the pressure with its full-court press and battled back into the game. A 10-0 run tied the game at 44-44 with 8:55 to play.
"We're never going to quit, no matter how down we are," Lofton said.
Patterson gave the Vols the lead for good at 56-55 on a steal and slam with 2:50 to play, then Dane Bradshaw and Lofton hit key three-pointers in the final two minutes.
In the end, Tennessee found a way to win and regained some momentum heading into the SEC Tournament, where it will have a first-round bye.
"We wanted to become the dangerous team we know we are," Pearl said. "We still have to be that team that nobody wants to play. We're smaller, we pressure, we shoot the three-ball. The last couple of games, it hasn't been that way."