“Our guys don’t want this to end, and they’re playing hard so that it can continue,” said Bruce Pearl. “And, yes, they want a championship, but they just want to keep playing, and nobody wants that more than the seniors.”
“I think, if you look at the stat sheet and you look at Wayne and J.P. and Bobby, it bears that out.”
Pearl is correct; it shows on the stat sheet. Wayne Chism had 16 points and grabbed 15 rebounds on the way to his second double-double of the tournament. J.P. Prince hit both of his three-point attempts and led Tennessee with 17 points in just 22 minutes on the floor. And Bobby Maze added 13 points, a couple assists, and a couple of steals. Overall, it was a very productive night for Tennessee seniors.
Cam Tatum also had a big game, providing some much needed outside shooting. After Thursday’s dismal performance from beyond the arc by the Vols, Tatum was a sight for sore eyes. He led Tennessee from outside, hitting four of his six attempts from long range.
“I think Cam did a terrific job,” Pearl said. “Obviously, Ole Miss plays some zone and saw how much the zone bothered us against LSU, really slowed us down. And we did not shoot the ball as well yesterday as we did today.”
“So Cameron coming in and making those shots, most of them, I believe, were against the zone, really opened things up for us on the inside.”
Another key to Friday’s win was free throw shooting. It’s not often that Tennessee wins the free throw battle, but that’s exactly what happened against Mississippi. Not only did the Vols hit a higher percentage than the Rebels, but they also shot more. Tennessee was 26-37 at the stripe for 70% while Ole Miss managed just 9-19 for a mere 48%.
Scotty Hopson had another subpar performance, scoring just six points on 4-11 shooting. Most of his shots missed badly and Hopson had problems just holding on to the basketball at times. It was worse than a bad day. He looked completely out of sorts.
But as has been the case all year, Tennessee hung its hat on defense.
If Ole Miss was going to have a chance to win, it needed a big game from Chris Warren. In the teams first meeting in Knoxville earlier this year, Josh Bone was responsible for guarding Warren and did an outstanding job. Last night it was Bobby Maze and Melvin Goins with the responsibility. Warren came out firing early, knocking down some big shots, but finished only 5-15 from the floor.
“Chris Warren is better from the three than he is from the two,” said Bruce Pearl. “When we didn’t press up on him, he knocked down tough shots. When we did press up on him and made him get into the lane, our guys were able to strip and rip. The physicality of the paint was not as much to his liking, and so therefore we were able to make some plays with our length and with our physicality as he got into the lane.”
With Friday’s win, Tennessee moves to 4-1 in SEC Tournament play in the last two seasons. The Vols went 2-1 last year, and this year’s record will be at least as good. Tennessee sits at 2-0 with tomorrow’s semifinal game looming.
However, if Tennessee hopes to repeat its championship game appearance, the Vols will have to beat the best.
“Kentucky is the best,” Pearl said. “They are the best team here. They’re one of the best teams in the country and obviously an opportunity to play them and win a championship is something that you relish that opportunity, and we’ll prepare and we’ll get after them.”
Tipoff will be at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday.