March 13, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- No one has to remind Bruce Pearl of Tennessee's shaky track record in the SEC tournament.
No titles since 1979, a string of opening-game disappointments as a No. 1 seed and not a lot of success under the Volunteers' fifth-year coach before Friday night's 86-62 quarterfinal rout of Alabama.
"We'd like to play for a championship, and I'm just really glad our fans don't have to go home tonight," Pearl said after improving to 2-3 in the league's showcase event, 1-1 as a No. 1 seed.
The victory was just the third for the Volunteers in their last 10 SEC tournament games. It avenged a regular-season-ending loss to Alabama and, just as importantly, bolstered Tennessee's resume for the NCAA tournament.
"I think it was more meaningful that the NCAA selection committee's watching. We talk about that all year. The key to advancing is to get a good seed," Pearl said. "Right now our seed is going to be just OK. We'd like to keep winning to try to improve our seed."
Tyler Smith scored 22 points and Wayne Chism added 15 for the Volunteers (20-11), who built an an 11-point lead before going on a 17-0 run to start the second half. They'll face Auburn in Saturday's semifinals.
Smith discounted the notion that Tennessee appeared motivated by last Sunday's 70-67 loss to the Crimson Tide in Knoxville.
"Maybe it's more about our season. If we come in and handle these games the way we want to, then we'll be up in the top seeds where we're looking for," Smith said.
"It's human nature to say that they beat us at home and ruined our Senior Night. But it was just something that we came out and wanted to prove to ourselves, not to them."
Tennessee won easily despite horrendous 3-point shooting (4 of 24, 16.7 percent). But the Volunteers were 31-for-48 (64.5 percent) inside the arc, with Smith, Chism and J.P. Prince, who scored 14, doing most of the damage.
Mikhail Torrance scored 13 points for Alabama (18-14), which regrouped after the late January resignation of former coach Mark Gottfried to play its best basketball of the season under interim coach Philip Pearson.
Alonzo Gee was a major reason why the Crimson Tide had won five of six games coming into the quarterfinals. But the senior from Riviera Beach, Fla., struggled Friday night, finishing with 12 points on 4-for-11 shooting.
Gee scored 25 in Alabama's first-round victory over Vanderbilt, but struggled for the second straight game against Tennessee. He had averaged 18.6 points per game during Alabama's season-ending surge, although he was 4-of-17 shooting and held to nine points in Knoxville.
The Alabama star missed his first three shots and was scoreless through the first 11 minutes. Mikhail Torrance tried to take up the slack, but the Crimson Tide never found a rhythm offensively.
"I think they just came ready to play, and they were physical the whole game," Gee said.
Last Sunday, poor free-throw shooting and Anthony Brock's desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer doomed Tennessee in its 70-67 loss to Alabama. The Volunteers dominated from the opening tip in this one, bolting to a 19-9 lead and barely looking back.
It was 43-32 at the half, with Tennessee shooting 44 percent despite being 1-of-14 on 3-point attempts. Inside the arc, the Volunteers had plenty of easy scoring opportunities, thanks in part to their relentless defensive pressure.
In all, Tennessee scored 60 points in the paint.
"I have to give the credit to all of my teammates. They ran the floor hard," Prince said. "Coach told us, "If you run, you can beat them in transition.' They were kind of lazy getting back and we got some easy looks. We ran hard and finished at the hole."
The scoreboard above the court at the St. Pete Times Forum malfunctioned at halftime, forcing anyone interested in knowing just how far Tennessee was ahead to turn to the upper deck of the half-empty arena.
The 17-0 run to begin the second half boosted the Volunteers' advantage to 60-32. Alabama was 0-for-6 and turned the ball over seven times during the seven-minute stretch. When Andrew Steele went to the foul line and sank a free throw to stop the run, a lone fan could be heard cheering and clapping sarcastically.