After a day of Huge losses the Vols victory over San Diego state allowed a lot of Vols fans to breathe easier. They gave their coach a Birthday victory and live to play another day. “I tell you the toughest one is sometimes the first one, it really is. Its a relief to get this one behind us. Especially when you go up a team as good as San Diego State. We wanted to try to beat them at their own game in a sense that we knew we had to keep them off the offensive boards, and they only had 11. They average 14. We thought if we could get the ball inside, we could hurt them on the offensive glass. The way we won the game was the way the kids have been winning all year long, really resilient. We didn’t play very well, San Diego State had a lot to do with that. But this team very much does not want to go home,” Pearl said.
“The biggest thing is we lost so many close games last season. Now we feel like we can handle that adversity. There’s nothing this team hasn’t been through, nothing we haven’t seen,” Bobby Maze said of the role experience played in the Vols’ resiliency tonight. We’ve seen tip-ins, halfcourt shots to beat us…we’ve seen it all. Tonight as the clock was running down and it was a one or two point game, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to win.”
As the Vol’s star on offense, Melvin Goins came off the bench to score a career-high 15 points, including a 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining that gave UT a 60-56 lead. “Coach (Pearl) was hollering ‘stick, stick, stick,’ so that gave me the confidence to catch it and shoot it,’’ said Goins, who made 4 of 5 shots beyond the 3-point arc. “I felt like I needed to step up for us to have a chance to advance.’’ This was probably the best I have seen Goins play to date personally. “It just feels great right now. Getting the win and advancing, that’s awesome. I’m glad I was able to contribute to it tonight, it’s just a great feeling,” Goins said, searching for words to describe his emotions. “I just let the game come to me and took what the defense gave me. The point guard was sagging off me a lot and I just took the shots that were open. It gives me a lot of confidence.”
J.P. Prince added 15 points for the Vols, and it was Prince’s heroics that made him the Vol’s star on the defensive end, as he held Leonard to 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting while also pulling down six rebounds. “J.P. was absolutely outstanding,’’ Pearl said. “Leonard is like Dennis Rodman; he’s such a talented player and tough player, but J.P. Is a tough kid, too, and that toughness doesn’t get enough attention.’’ Leonard did finish with a Double Double though pulling in 10 rebounds. “I love a challenge and I knew it was going to take my absolute best defensive effort. Luckily I’m blessed with long arms and the ability to move my feet. I just tried to make it tough for him to catch it where he wanted to and then try to keep him off the boards,” Prince said of the approach that made the going so tough for Leonard. “My teammates did a great job of having my back and I tried to keep him from being able to go right. I don’t think he was used to playing against someone with my height who is as athletic as he is. I knew I could jump with him and I knew I could battle with him.”
At one point Prince went down after receiving an elbow to the jaw. While Prince was face-down on the floor, Chism walked over and instead of offering a hand, gave him a couple of kicks in the shoulder, urging him to shake it off without delay. “J.P. does that to me all the time when I go down hard,” Chism said with a laugh after the fact. “I was just letting him know we needed him to get up and keep going, we couldn’t afford to have him out of the game then.” Chism didn’t have his best game of the year but still managed 11 points and 5 rebounds which is encouraging to the Vols. Hopefully he will light it up down low before its all said and done.
Chism and Williams both hit huge free throw shots in the final minutes to help the Vols maintain the victory. The free throws were Williams’ only points of the game, though he led the Vols with eight rebounds. Afterwards, the big man joked that he came through despite the fact that it didn’t seem at the time he had the confidence of his teammates. “It feels great, I mean, I saw teammates sitting over there praying when I was going to the line. J.P. went over and tried to tell the ref that Wayne was the guy who got fouled. I was like ‘man, I thought these were my teammates,'” Williams joked. “I owe it to the coaches, they’ve worked with me a lot on that, never giving up on me. I mean I’ve been struggling there, shooting 50-percent for my career, but these last couple of games I’ve been showing some improvement.”
The game was particular special for Williams. After all, no one wants to go through their college career without giving their mom something to cheer about. “The game was on the line and if I missed, I knew there was a good chance we were going home. My mom was in the crowd and I owed it to her to come through. She thinks she’s bad luck because almost every game she’s been to we’ve lost,” a laughing Williams said, noting that his mother, who lives in New York, was on hand to see the Vols lose to Texas in New Jersey two years ago and at Temple in December of last season. “So now she thinks she’s bad luck. Hopefully after tonight she won’t feel that way anymore. I don’t want her to be afraid to come to our games.”
Scotty Hopson even showed signs of life on Thursday night which is encouraging to everyone in the Vols camp. Hopson finished with eight points on 3-of-9 shooting, and showed some signs of perhaps coming out of his shooting slump. He was 2-of-5 from three point range, one of them a pressure-packed shot that put Tennessee on top 53-47 with 4:44 left in the game. “I was a little passive early in the game, but on that last one I came off the down-screen and I knew if I was open it was going up. I stepped into it and shot it with some confidence today,” Hopson said of the late-game three. “I knew that I had to come through for us and when the opportunity came for me to knock down that shot I was ready to take advantage of it.” If the Vols can get him up and running then they will be hard to stop from making an even deeper run.
The team didn’t win by as many as I would have hoped but I am happy we advance and think we have a lot of optimistic things going our way moving into Saturday’s game. The 500 or so Vols’ fans in attendance sang the Happy Birthday song to Pearl as UT exited the court. His extend family and high school coach as well as friends attended the game which I’m sure was very special to Coach Pearl. “He’s from 20 minutes away from here, so it’s really special to be here, playing in front of his old family,” said Steven Pearl. “All of our aunts and uncles live up here, so that’s been special, and a lot of friends have come to support us.”
It used to be that just getting to the NCAA Tournament was an accomplishment for the Vols. No more. With five appearances on his five-year watch at UT, Pearl has raised the bar. Of the 14 NCAA Tournament wins in school history, Pearl has authored six. On Saturday, he’ll seek No. 7. The Vols will meet up with the Bobcats of Ohio University who turned into Dragon Slayers on Thursday evening. The Bobcats defeated Georgetown 97-83 earlier Thursday, marking only the 15th time that a 14th-seeded team has defeated a No. 3 seed since the NCAA tournament expanded from 48 teams in 1985.
“They won their league, won their tournament. They played a good lead in the MAC. I know how good the MAC is. I understand the balance there. I know how many great coaches there are there,” Pearl said of catching Ohio in the second round. “We’ll have to figure out the ball screen. They do a tremendous job in their offensive ball screen. We can’t let them beat us with that. We’re playing a team that was good enough to beat Georgetown, the No. 3 team seeded in this tournament. We will have no trouble getting ready in respecting our opponent.”
- Tennessee advanced to the second round of the tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
- It was the Vols’ first win in the tournament against a team from Mountain West Conference.
- Four players scored in double-figures for Tennessee including 15 points each from J.P. Prince and Melvin Goins.
- D.J. Gay finished with a game-high 16 points in the loss for San Diego State, which is 0-6 all-time in the tournament.
- The Vols were 8-for-17 on 3s and 14-for-18 at the foul line.
- JP Prince – 15 pts 6 reb 2 ast 1 stl 1 blk
- Wayne Chism – 11 pts 5 reb 1 stl 1 blk
- Brian Williams – 2 pts 8 reb 1 ast
- Bobby Maze – 11 pts 2 ast
- Scotty Hopson – 8 pts 3 reb 3 ast 1 stl
- Melvin Goins – 15 pts 1 reb
- Tatum, Pearl, Hall, McBee – 6 reb 2 ast 1 blk
Later today there will be a spring football update and a Bryce Brown report as well as Round 1 reactions and a look at the Ohio-UT matchup.