Coach Bruce Pearl never directly referred to Wednesday’s 82-71 victory over Georgia as a must-win game, but it was clear to everyone coming in that Tennessee needed this victory.
“We took it as a must-win, and I do not think they took it as that,” Tennessee guard Jordan Howell said. “Coach Pearl said before the game, ‘I want you to want this more than Georgia,’ and I think we did.”
With Chris Lofton missing yet another game with injury, players like Howell, Ramar Smith and JaJuan Smith stepped up their game to help the Volunteers end a slump that saw them lose five out of their last six games. Being back in front of the home fans was just the thing Tennessee needed to get back to their early-season success.
“The fans were not going to let Georgia come back in this game,” Pearl said.
This was a quality win for Tennessee (15-7, 3-4) over a good Georgia (13-7, 5-3) team that had won five of their previous six games.
The Vols started out both halves with a fast-pace as J. Smith hit a three-pointer nine seconds into the game, and then came out in the second half hitting another shot only 10 seconds in. When Tennessee needed a basket, J. Smith was the one they often looked to.
On defense, Tennessee’s smaller lineup often forced Georgia’s much larger lineup out of the paint before they could get the ball. Georgia’s leading scorer for the season, Takias Brown, was held to 12 points and a non-factor for most of the game. Physical guard Sundiata Gaines led the Bulldogs in scoring with 21 points by forcing the tempo and driving to the net using picks from the free-throw line.
Tennessee’s defense often forced Georgia to rely on its perimeter offense. The Bulldogs attempted 14 three-pointers in the first half, hitting their first attempt but missing the next 13 of the half.
“It was probably the best half-court defense effort that we’ve had, maybe since I’ve been here,” Pearl said.
During the losing streak Tennessee had been struggling down low on both ends of the court. Against Georgia, Duke Crews took advantage of Georgia’s 7-0 center Rashaad Singleton’s lack of jumping ability and rose up over him for some tough baskets. Crews finished with a double-double accounting for 10 points and 10 rebounds
The story of the second half for Tennessee was the back-court combination of R. Smith and Howell. The duo recorded individual career-highs while playing most of the second half together in the rotation. R. Smith finished with 21 points and Howell with 11.
Howell usually is not seen launching jumpers upon his first touch of the possession, but Pearl said that he talked to Howell during the week about being more aggressive with his play.
“Coach Pearl told me I could be better,” Howell said. “He wants me to be aggressive. He sat down with me one-on-one before the game and told me, ‘I want you to be aggressive, I want you to take the shot.’”
R. Smith broke through in the second half. He has shown that he can score in the paint during previous games, but Wednesday he not only did that, he hit back-to-back three-pointers to extend Tennessee’s lead to 61-48 halfway through the second half.
“The outside shot is coming along pretty good because I’ve been working really hard at it,” R. Smith said. “If I can hit that, then I can get to the basket easier and get my teammates open.”
Pearl, team capture must-win game
Published: Fri Feb 02, 2007 | Modified: Fri Feb 02, 2007 12:26 p.m.