Jan. 10, 2010
BY JOSH PATE, UTSports.com
Once the formal handshake was over at midcourt, Bruce Pearl turned to the seats and pointed to the crowd. He shook hands with donors and alumni on the front row. He hugged his players, and he took hold of the orange Power T flag and waved it to the student section.
In Pearl's words, No. 16 Tennessee's 76-68 upset victory over No. 1-ranked Kansas (14-1) on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena put the Vols (12-2) on the map.
"What that says is we have got a basketball program here - a basketball program that is capable of beating the No. 1 team in the country," Pearl said after the game.
The Vols have beaten a top-ranked team before - three other times, in fact. The most recent came when they knocked down No. 1 Memphis in 2008, and Tennessee was ranked No. 2 then.
But this was different.
This was from a team that took the floor without its All-Southeastern Conference performer in Tyler Smith, who is no longer on the team for disciplinary reasons. It was without three other players who are indefinitely suspended. It was a team that put six scholarship players on the floor and three walk-ons, and at one time had all three non-scholarship athletes playing at the same time while leading the Jayhawks 50-42 with 13 minutes to play.
Within a week, the Vols have gone from the lowest of lows under Pearl to perhaps the highest of highs.
"When you talk about all the stuff they have been through, I do not think Tennessee was a team until this past week," Kansas head coach Bill Self said. "Usually, things occur to allow your guys to really become a team. Sometimes they are negative things, sometimes they are positive things, sometimes it is winning a game - it could be a plethora of things. And I bet Tennessee is closer to becoming a team with an identity than they were before."
Tennessee's confidence showed.
The Vols controlled the tempo from early on, falling behind 14-6. UT rallied with three consecutive 3-pointers from Renaldo Woolridge and finally tied it. They never looked back, and the crowd didn't either.
An announced attendance of 21,936 - the second-largest since renovations at Thompson-Boling Arena - was singing Rocky Top in unison after a Scotty Hopson dunk that made it 68-64 with 3:13 to play. Bobby Maze got a steal and made two free throws for Tennessee, then J.P. Prince followed with another steal to ignite the arena. Kansas called a timeout.
"I think from the jump guys knew that we could pull this off, but at the end of the game when there was maybe two or three minutes left, they called a timeout. We started looking at each other and saying, `We're here,'" Hopson said. "At that point in the game, we thought we could win it. We knew we could win it."
Brady Morningstar hit a 3 for Kansas, but UT's Skylar McBee answered with a leaning 3 as the shot clock expired to bury the Jayhawks.
Again, Tennessee got career numbers from unsuspecting players. Maze, who went toe-to-toe with Kansas All-America guard Sherron Collins, came away with a season-high 16 points, dished eight assists and grabbed a career-high seven rebounds. Collins got his high numbers with 22 points, but it was on 7-of-20 shooting, 2-of-10 from long range.
Renaldo Woolridge backed up his strong outing against Charlotte by scoring a career-high 14 points on four 3-pointers and getting eight rebounds. Hopson led Tennessee with 17 points, 11 of which came in the second half.
"Throughout the whole week, we were all just motivated to prove to everybody and the whole world what happens when a team stays together," Woolridge said. "We can achieve greatness. We move on from here. Our team stayed together and just worked hard.
"We were able to show the world what we're about, what Tennessee basketball is about, and where our heart is. Now we just move on from here."
Pearl warned that the celebration won't last long. The Southeastern Conference schedule begins this week. And the Vols enter league play with something they were searching for just last week: an identity.
"Again, this is why you take the game at Kansas," Pearl said of scheduling the basketball powerhouse. "Because you have a chance to do something special. It was nice to do something positive here. I think the folks are really rooting for us."