March 3, 2010
BY JOSH PATE
It was almost as if the play was designed just for Wednesday night. But that would have been impossible.
Trailing by nine points, Arkansas' Courtney Fortson drove the lane with just more than a minute to play at Thompson-Boling Arena. He went up for the jumper, but Tennessee's Wayne Chism went up with him. Chism's arms swatted the ball backward, where Bobby Maze awaited and turned toward UT's basket for a fast break. Maze tossed ahead to a sprinting J.P. Prince, who threw down the jam to push Tennessee's lead to 11 at 76-68 with 1:04 remaining.
Tennessee held on to beat Arkansas 80-73 in its final home game of the season, and that one block and fast-break point turned out to be more show than substance for the No. 16 Vols (22-7, 10-5 SEC). Those three seniors enjoyed their moment in the closing minutes of the game. But UT head coach Bruce Pearl warned that, despite the seniors being honored in their last Knoxville showing, there's still work ahead.
"I don't want to reflect on their careers right now because we have a long way to go," Pearl said. "I want to focus on the SEC Tournament. I want to focus on Arkansas and focus on our team and what we need to do to get better. March won't last very long if we play like that."
The Vols shot the ball well at 57.7 percent, and held Arkansas (14-16, 7-8 SEC) to just 39.4 percent from the floor. Tennessee had five guys in double figures, led by Scotty Hopson's 15 and Chism's 14, in one of its more balanced acts of the season. Still, the Vols couldn't put the Razorbacks to bed.
UT pushed a four-point halftime lead to 11 early in the second half, but Arkansas chipped it down to three with 14:34 remaining in the game. Tennessee took it back to as many as 13 when it led 61-48 after a dunk by Prince, but again the Razorbacks whittled it down to six with 7:56 to play. Arkansas could never get it closer than seven from then on, which was the final margin, but Tennessee also couldn't pull away.
"Every time we were trying to get the lead up, they were making plays down the stretch," Maze said. "So we were never able to really pull away."
Prince acknowledged the focus wasn't where Pearl wanted.
"It's a tough night," Prince said. "It's senior night. It's not a normal game. Everybody wants the seniors to play a good game and let them have fun. So it's a tough game. You just want to chalk it up, get the W, let your seniors have a good night and get it over with.
"We'll get back to playing without all of the distractions. As a senior, there's a lot going through our minds. It was our last game. Everything you do in those last five minutes, it's your last time on the court. Did we play our best basketball in the end? No. Were we sloppy? Yeah, you could say that."
Pearl said he was pleased Tennessee didn't experience a Kentucky hangover from Saturday's upset victory against the Wildcats.
"This team has come ready to play every night," Pearl said. "This could have been a letdown. It wasn't a letdown. We were ready to play. But I expect more. That play doesn't win an SEC Tournament game or an NCAA game. It's March."
The Vols wrap up the regular season Saturday at Mississippi State before traveling to Nashville the following week for the SEC Tournament. Pulling out the victory against Arkansas despite not displaying their best effort was important to the team, but also dangerous as the rest of the season is on the road or on neutral hardwood.
"It's very important, but now you know you've got to bring your A game in every game," Chism said. "We should have played better but we didn't because the seniors were excited for this game. They're going to miss being in here. Now it's like, you didn't do a good job of playing so you've got to really step your game up on the road."
Pearl reinforced the issue, pointing to last season's late letdown when the Vols lost their final home game against Alabama which played a role in damaging their NCAA seeding.
"We won not playing our best basketball," Pearl said of Wednesday night's game. "Last year against Alabama we lost. But we didn't (Wednesday). We won. I'm raising the expectation at this point."