Vols outplay Memphis, but still have tough task ahead in SEC play
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- To sum up the difference between Tennessee and Memphis, let's examine the postgame scene.
The Vols are on quite a joy ride, best illustrated by coach Bruce Pearl. The amiable coach's postgame journey took him from the media interview to a fake "Entertainment Tonight" bit to his egging on the fans' No. 1 chants and "Rocky Top" singing, finally ending at his radio show.
Meanwhile, Memphis' locker room was a tomb. Lockers were slammed. Heads hung low. Senior Joey Dorsey never raised his head. Junior Chris Douglas-Roberts didn't remove a jersey from his face. Three players talked and didn't say much, other than junior Robert Dozier who said that the Vols "outplayed us to every loose ball" and "they were the better team." Freshman Derrick Rose said that he "felt empty" after the first loss of the season.
No. 2 Tennessee likely will replace Memphis as the No. 1 team in the country after the 66-62 victory here in what was deemed the most-hyped regular-season game in the schools' history. It even brought the King's widow, Priscilla Presley, and Peyton Manning to the FedExForum.
"It means a lot because of the rivalry and a lot of people didn't believe in us," said Tennessee's JaJuan Smith, who battled cramps throughout the night. "But it feels good to make all these people in blue sick."
"We're celebrating, but what I really liked was that our kids acted like we belonged after we won," Pearl said. "The biggest thing is I didn't know if we were the best team in the country, but I knew we were 40 minutes from No. 1. Are you kidding me? But I felt we could come here and win."
And now, the Vols get No. 16 Vanderbilt in Nashville on Tuesday night (ESPN, 9 ET). Memphis will play Tulsa -- 6-6 in Conference USA play to the Tigers' 12-0 -- back here at the FedExForum on Wednesday.
Tennessee (25-2) could still be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but its remaining schedule means it has no time to celebrate this win. The Vols, who are 11-1 in the SEC, have to get through that trip to Vandy, a home game with Kentucky, a road game at Florida and the SEC tournament.
Pearl said he did talk to the players about being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and how rare the opportunity ahead of the Vols was. But he has been in the position of spoiler before -- sort of. This is the second time in three years Tennessee has beaten the last undefeated team in the country; the Vols took out Florida's 17-0 team in 2005-06.
"This means a lot knowing where we came from," said Tennessee senior guard Chris Lofton. "My freshman team, we were 14-17 and the laughingstock of the SEC."
Memphis (26-1) likely won't lose again before the NCAA Tournament with the Tulsa game, road games at Southern Miss and SMU and a home game against UAB, then the likely top seed in the conference tourney held, yes, right here in Memphis.
In Memphis coach John Calipari's postgame interview, he compared Saturday's loss to his 1996 UMass' team's first loss. Both teams lost after opening the season with 26 straight wins.
"I really wanted to win the game, but we're 26-1," Calipari said.
The Tigers are still in play as a potential No. 1 seed. But there were plenty of issues the Vols were able to expose.
This wasn't artistic by any means. Early on, the two teams looked as if they were going to run up and down and push 90 points, but quick-handed defense, plenty of missed shots (neither team shot better than 32 percent on 3s) and scoring lulls slogged the scoring into the 60s.
The Vols simply made clutch plays and Memphis did not. Sophomore Tyler Smith scored on a turnaround jumper in traffic with 24.5 seconds left to give Tennessee the lead for good. Memphis' Antonio Anderson missed a shot in the final nine seconds for Memphis. The Tigers, who were woefully outrebounded 50-34, did get an offensive rebound with 41 seconds left, but it was by two Tigers -- Dorsey and Dozier -- who tied each other up and traveled as they fell to the floor.
"I got no answers, and if I did, I don't feel like saying them," Rose said.
"Nobody really had a great game, but we had guys step up at times," said Lofton, referencing Memphis-native J.P. Prince's 13 points and eight boards, Tennessee-native Wayne Chism's three 3s, and Tyler Smith's key bucket.
Tennessee's aggressiveness on the defensive end (forcing 11 Memphis turnovers), can be traced to Pearl's own passion to drive this team every possession.
Although Pearl said earning the No. 1 ranking is "cool," he knows it might not last long because of what Tennessee has ahead.
"Win or lose, we've got to go to Vandy," Pearl said.
Then he headed to the court and greeted the Tennessee fans. "How about them Vols!"
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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