Dec. 2, 2009
BY JOSH PATE, UTSports.com
When Tennessee's leading cast member was off, it had to turn to its supporting actors to pick up the slack. Funny thing is, it's hard to call Tyler Smith a supporting actor.
Despite an ice-cold shooting night for the No. 11 Volunteers, they managed to hold on and defeat in-state rival ETSU 78-66. But their leading scorer, Scotty Hopson, struggled from the floor all night. Hopson did ring in 10 points, but his shooting told a different story. Hopson, who averages 16.7 points per game this season, was just 4-of-14 from the field and made just two of his eight 3-point shots.
At times this season, the senior has looked as if he blatantly tried to get others involved on the floor, but on Wednesday night he was forced to take things into his own hands. He led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and became the floor leader late in the game when the Bucs were threatening.
"It's just something that I felt we needed to do," Smith said. "We were shooting a lot of long balls and giving rebounds - shots that Scotty or Skylar (McBee) or Cameron (Tatum) usually make. They just weren't falling. So I took it upon myself to get to the rim and do whatever it takes to win."
But it was more than his scoring that put Tennessee over the edge in a close contest.
With UT leading 61-53 late in the game and ETSU having just scored three unanswered buckets, Smith drove the lane and then kicked out to Hopson for one of his 3s. Just after that, J.P. Prince saved a steal by tossing it to Smith, and Smith dished it right back to a darting Prince for an inside basket and foul. The conversion made it 69-58 with 3:33 to play.
When the Buccaneers answered with a 3-pointer, Smith got the ball in the paint, pump-faked and drew the foul when he converted on the basket underneath. The free throw again pushed it to an 11-point UT lead at 72-61 with 1:18 to play.
Tennessee's size advantage was clear on the floor, and the Vols outscored the Bucs 36-26 in the paint. Normally an outside threat, Hopson tried his luck around the rim. But shots simply weren't falling. The Vols shot 47.5 percent for the game, 35 percent from 3-point land.
McBee and Brian Williams were able to avoid the slump. The freshman McBee scored nine points on 3-of-3 shooting from long range. Williams saw 20 minutes of action and added nine points also, shooting 4-of-7 from the field.
"It was a tough matchup," Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl said. "They were so much smaller than us. They spread us out some. If we finish around the basket and score more on our inside shots -- because that's the place to go because the size difference -- then the margin of victory is much greater."
The Vols don't play again until Dec. 11 when they take on Middle Tennessee State University in Nashville. The week between will be light as they shift focus from the court to the classroom for final exams.
"It's been tough," McBee said of the balance. "School is tough when you're going through practice and classes and all the other things. You have to manage your time. It is a hard time right now because you have to handle school."
Pearl didn't seem convinced that his team's lackluster performance on Wednesday was all due to coursework, but he admitted that this time of year is difficult on everyone, particularly after the team's trip to the Virgin Islands last week.
"Our preparation prior to the Virgin Islands was great," Pearl said. "We knew Purdue was there, St. Joseph's, DePaul. I was happy with our practices in preseason and leading into then. I've not been happy with our practices the past week. I'll chalk it up to finals and last week. We have got to get better leadership from that standpoint.
"I told our seniors it's not my job to coach the effort. That comes from the seniors. I've asked them to help me a little more on that. We'll take some time off for finals and see if we can get in the weight room and get our pop back."