The Vols put together some of their best basketball of the season in avenging victories over Alabama and Auburn while scoring an average of 90 points per outing to reach the finals for the first time since 1991. However after shooting 57.6 percent against the SEC’s best defensive team (Auburn), UT shot a horrid 29 percent (20 of 69) against Mississippi State — a drop of nearly 50 percent over 18 hours.
The Bulldogs also struggled from the field, connecting on 36.2 (17 of 47) for the game and 23.1 percent (3 of 13) from three-point range. UT was actually better from beyond the arc, hitting 8 of 27 (29.6 percent), but the Dogs shot 13 more free throws in the game (32 to 19) making 10 more charity tosses.
“Obviously, we shot a low, probably a season low, probably a low in my career as far as field goal percentage is concerned when we have been playing so very, very well offensively,” Pearl said in the post game press conference. “(Jarvis) Varnardo was a factor on the inside (six blocks), and our inability to get out and run in transition.
“Mississippi State was very patient, and spread us out controlled tempo, which has a way of forcing tremendous impatience on the opponent. Often times, through our cutters, we dictate tempo, we control tempo, and the other team gets impatient, and that's just exactly what happened to us tonight. And I couldn't get, I just couldn't get that turned around.”
Although Tennessee never gained control of tempo or practiced patience against a tightly packed zone, it did have it’s opportunities to win the contest, including two possessions in the last nine seconds on its own end of the court, trailing by a point at 62-61. Both times the Bulldogs forced a turnover and the Vols never got a shot off with the championship hanging in the balance.
The Bulldogs Barry Stewart made two free throws to put his team up by three and Cameron Tatum’s three-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark.
The Vols were led in scoring by Wayne Chism who had 15 points, followed by J.P. Prince with 14 and the team’s top scorer Tyler Smith with 12 on 2-of-14 shooting. Chism made only 5 of 17 from the field while point guard Bobby Maze went scoreless over 22 minutes of play missing four shots. The Vols other lead guard, Josh Tabb, finished with two points on 1-of-6 shooting in 19 minutes of action.
UT’s lack of consistency has plagued the program the entire season in what many thought was Bruce Pearl’s most talented Tennessee team in his four seasons at the basketball helm. The Vols made it back to the NCAA, won the SEC East and reached the conference title game for the first time in 18 years. Still he knows some will be disappointed.
“One of the toughest things about this season has been ... I continue to hear how people are disappointed," Pearl said. "Well, we disappointed them again. At the same time, I'm proud of my basketball team for how many times we've picked ourselves up off the deck and played beautiful basketball.”