Big finish lifts Tennessee

Big finish lifts Tennessee

Sometimes you have to slow the pace to win the race. Tuesday night that was the case.

After playing out-of-control fast in the first half, ninth-ranked Tennessee eased off the accelerator over the final 20 minutes and pulled away for a 77-58 defeat of Wyoming at Thompson-Boling Arena.

With both teams playing at a hectic pace, the Cowboys used a 19-2 explosion to turn a 23-16 deficit into a 35-25 first-half lead. Tennessee clawed back to go up 42-41 at the break but did not have the game under control by any means.

It was during the intermission that a Vol assistant coach made a comment that would turn the tide in Tennessee's favor.

"Jason Shay made an excellent observation at halftime, and it impacted me and the way I approached the second half," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "He said, 'This team can't beat us in a halfcourt game.'"

Because Tennessee and Wyoming love to press and run, the concept of a halfcourt game was as foreign as Cowboy center Boubacar Sylla, a native of Paris. The more Pearl considered slowing the pace, however, the more sensible the option seemed. With better shooters and better depth, the Vols should be able to take control of the game if they'd merely quit stopping themselves with careless mistakes and quick shots.

And that's exactly what happened. With Pearl subbing freely to keep fresh legs in the game, Tennessee went on a 27-8 explosion that turned a scant 48-47 lead into a commanding 75-55 bulge. And it all happened because an uptempo coach decided to slow the tempo a bit.

"We had talked about not allowing the tempo to get us to play so fast that we don't take care of the basketball," Pearl said, "but it (Shay's comment) got me to slow things down a little bit more. I didn't press them as much in the second half but we wore them out."

Tennessee "wore them out" by playing tenacious defense against the Cowboys, who lost their stamina and their shooting touch midway through the second half. Wyoming hit its last field goal of the game with 9:02 left. The Cowboys were outscored 16-5 thereafter.

After producing 41 first-half points, the Cowboys scored just 17 second-half points. After shooting 42 percent in the first half, they shot 26 percent in the second half. After making 4 of 13 shots from 3 in the first half, they were 0 of 8 in the second half.

"What's impressive to me was that second-half defense - 26 percent, five field goals, 17 points, outrebounded 'em (15-10)," Pearl said. "We played a good game."

After shooting just 44 percent in the first half, the Vols shot 52 percent in the second. Pearl thought the reason was obvious.

"When you go up against a pressing team, attack in numbers but don't settle and try to shoot quick every single time," he said. "I thought that's one thing we did in the first half, and that's what our shooting percentage was all about."

Tennessee forced 29 turnovers, while committing just 13. That helped the Vols win handily, despite a rough night from beyond the arc. They shot 47.6 percent from the floor and 68.4 percent from the foul line but hit a season-low 20.0 percent (4 of 20) from 3.

When asked about the 3-point shooting, Pearl grew a bit testy.

"We did all of this positive stuff," he said, shaking his head. "We did all of this positive stuff. I'll take the blame. It was my fault."

Vol sophomore Scotty Hopson, limited to one point last Friday against Middle Tennessee, bounced back with a team-high 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting vs. Wyoming. Wayne Chism added 13 points. Tyler Smith chipped in 10 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, a block and 2 steals. Brian Williams came off the bench to contribute 9 points and a team-high 7 rebounds. Sixth-man J.P. Prince added 4 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds.

Afam Muojeke was the only double-figure scorer for Wyoming, registering 15 points on 4-of-15 shooting.

Tennessee moves to 8-1, while Wyoming slips to 5-5.

"This was a good win," Pearl said. "I think we learned a lot. We stepped up, and I'm pleased."

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