Coach Bruce Pearl had Tennessee slow things down in its SEC tournament opener with hopes of conserving energy to make a run to the league title game.
That strategy nearly backfired, and Pearl realizes it won’t work again.
The 15th-ranked Volunteers look to put a lackluster performance behind them and have a more aggressive attitude when they face Mississippi on Friday in Nashville, Tenn.
Tennessee (24-7) drew the third seed in the East Division, making it the league’s only ranked team to compete on the first day of the tournament. That set up the possibility of playing four games in four days, including a quarterfinal matchup with a Rebels team that nearly won in Knoxville two months ago.
Wanting his team to stay fresh for the rest of the tournament, Pearl had the Vols play a zone defense Thursday against an LSU team that finished the regular season with only two conference wins. While Tennessee played well on defense, the offense never got in gear, finishing with 21 first-half points on 25.9 percent shooting—its worst in any half this season.
Things got slightly better for the Vols after the break and they went on to win 59-49.
“If we would have lost that game I would have put that one on myself,” Pearl said. “I’m already putting it on myself that we didn’t come out as aggressively as we should have.”
The Vols held the held the ball for much of the shot clock and then made sloppy passes trying to get inside, totaling 17 turnovers and making only 4 of 23 shots from beyond the arc.
Pearl acknowledges a repeat of Thursday’s performance won’t get it done against a rested Mississippi team that grabbed a first-round bye as the West’s No. 2 seed
“If we play like that (Friday), we won’t advance,” Pearl said. “We will get beat. We have to play better to beat Ole Miss.”
The Vols had similar offensive woes in their only game of the season against Mississippi - a 71-69 overtime victory on Jan. 16 - shooting 35.4 percent while missing 17 of 23 3-point attempts. Pearl said that was one of his team’s toughest wins of the season.
Senior Wayne Chism scored 26 points and made all 10 free-throw attempts against Ole Miss, and led the Vols with 17 points and 11 rebounds on Thursday.
The Rebels (21-9) not only come into this game a bit more rested than Tennessee, but they’re also determined for a strong tournament performance knowing their NCAA fate is on the line.
Ole Miss, which won its final four regular-season games to earn a share of the SEC West crown, is on the outside of the NCAA tournament picture and needs a strong showing to receive its first berth since 2002.
“We’re playing for a lot,” coach Andy Kennedy said after Saturday’s 68-66 win over Arkansas. “To get to 21-9 and 9-7, and to continue our winning streak … gives us some much-needed momentum.”
Led by junior guard Chris Warren, who averages a team-best 17.2 points, the Rebels are trying to reach the SEC semifinals for the first time since 2007.
Warren is coming off one of his best performances of the season, scoring 20 of his 31 points in the second half of Saturday’s comeback win over the Razorbacks.