Dec. 23, 2009
BY JOSH PATE, UTSports.com
Happy Holidays, Tennessee. Three whole days.
The No. 16 Volunteers, after beating North Carolina A&T 99-78 Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, will get a short breather from head coach Bruce Pearl. Pearl said he hopes the players get away from basketball to concentrate on their family life back home. But not too far away.
"Everybody is ready for a break," Pearl said. "It's interesting because the holiday season affects different people in different professions. This is a profession that doesn't lend itself to a holiday. The kids will be gone for three days and I told them to understand the blessings they have. When they go home, a lot of people have done things for them so they can be here, so I hope they understand that."
Then came the caveat.
"I told them we are going to train harder than we have before when we get back from the break," Pearl said. "If confidence is the issue in shooting, there is no better way to improve confidence than working harder. If you get in that gym and shoot until your arm is falling off then you're going to get better."
Even with the 21-point victory Wednesday, the Vols are aiming to improve before a critical stretch of the nonconference season approaches. Tennessee plays cross-state rival Memphis on Dec. 31, a Charlotte team on Jan. 6 that is receiving votes in the Associated Press top 25 poll, and finally a home date with top-ranked Kansas on Jan. 10.
All that comes after a slumping shooting stretch against Wyoming and USC, which beat the Vols 77-55 over the weekend. Wednesday's victory over North Carolina A&T was never in doubt (UT opened with a 22-0 lead), but Tennessee did have a second-half stretch that saw the Aggies outscore the Vols 17-2 as bench players held court for the orange. UT shot 45.1 percent from the floor.
One glaring positive was that UT's bench outscored the Aggies 60-31 thanks to a pair of freshmen. Kenny Hall scored a career-high 16 to pace the Vols, and Skylar McBee provided an early surge from long range and finished with 12 points and three steals.
"Skylar stepped up in a big way," Pearl said. "You could tell he was annoyed and felt personally responsible for the shooting in the last two games, Wyoming and USC. He looked like he was doing something about it. Only Chris Lofton rivals him."
The bold statement came as former Vol Lofton was present at the game being honored with a standing ovation while UT announced the dedication of the recruiting room in his name.
"We haven't shot the ball as good as we did at the first of the season," McBee said. "Me, Scotty (Hopson) and Cam (Cameron Tatum), we have to take that person that is guarding us. Coach Pearl does a good job of talking about how you have to only worry about yourself and what you contribute to this team. I think we all took that personally."
As for Hall, he was thrown into added action because starting center Wayne Chism was still battling a bruised pelvis. Hall played 13 minutes to Chism's eight.
"Kenny has potential to be great player but he has to work hard at it," Pearl said. "Kenny has worked hard enough to do some great things like he did tonight, but he's only scratching the surface."
Hall agreed that the pending break will be good for the team to refocus on what's ahead. But in no way will they close their eyes on the Tigers.
"Even though we're getting away from basketball, I'm still not going to forget that we've got an important game coming up on the 31st," said Hall in reference to the Memphis game.
Pearl reiterated the importance of improvement.
"We need to play a lot better than we are now to beat people on our schedule," he said. "I understand that."