The Vols are 15-2 overall, 3-0 in SEC play and ranked No. 8 nationally in large part because they are good closers. They have played six games this season that were decided by 8 points or less, winning five. (The exception was a 73-72 loss to Purdue.) In each of those five wins they pulled away down the stretch.
Here's a quick history lesson:
- They outscored DePaul 10-5 over the final 6:30 to win 57-53.
- They outscored Memphis 7-4 over the final 1:00 to win 66-59.
- They outscored Kansas 12-4 over the final 4:00 to win 76-68
- They outscored Ole Miss 25-15 over the final 7:00 to win 71-69 in overtime.
- They outscored Alabama 7-4 over the final 3:00 to win 63-56.
Oddly enough, a Tennessee team that was a mediocre closer en route to a 21-13 record in 2008-09 has become a superior closer in 2009-10. The obvious question: Why?
"I think we have a mature team," sophomore guard Scotty Hopson said. "Guys know how to win now. The older guys are stepping up and making big plays. Wayne (Chism) came through in the second half (vs. Alabama) and we're just learning how to win better.
Chism came through, all right, scoring 11 of Tennessee's final 14 points. Fellow seniors Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince came through, too, repeatedly breaking down the Tide defense to get Chism the ball in close.
"I thought our seniors did a good job of closing the game out," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "Bobby and J.P. and Wayne made plays at both ends of the floor, whether it be rebounding, loose balls or Wayne scoring 11 of our last 14."
Tennessee had only one senior last season, Ryan Childress, and he played a mopup role due to health problems. Having three senior starters this season has been a real plus at crunch time.
"You have to put it on them in those late-game stretches," Pearl said. "Even though we may be somewhat shorthanded, we are still an experienced team with three seniors out there. Obviously, at a crucial time (vs. Alabama) Wayne Chism demonstrated he was the best player on the floor, which he also did against Ole Miss."
Indeed. Chism was almost as dominant late against the Rebels in Game 16 as he was against the Tide in Game 17, scoring 12 of Tennessee's final 25 points. Naturally, those two clutch performances have the 6-9, 245-pounder's confidence soaring.
"It is a lot of confidence because I've made a lot of my shots," Chism said. "My team sees me making shots, so they know automatically they're going to come in there."
As well as Chism is playing, however, shutting down one player is do-able. Trying to shut down a team with three or four late-game scoring options - as Tennessee has - is a much bigger challenge. Maze, Hopson, Prince and even freshman Skylar McBee also have helped seal wins with last-minute heroics.
"We've got Scotty that's going to shoot the ball or J.P. that's going to drive it or come inside," Chism noted. "We've got a lot of options, and teams are thinking about who the ball's going to go to down the stretch - me, J.P. or Scotty."
And, while opponents are thinking, Tennessee is closing.