Strange: Defense took charge of Cowboys

Mike Strange

I won't try to sell you that Tennessee's 77-58 win over Wyoming on Tuesday night was a beauty to behold.

The Vols continued their pattern of spending too many minutes playing to the level of the competition rather than to the level of a top-10 team.

A Thompson-Boling Arena crowd grew restless, impatient for the home team to drub somebody by 30, 40 or 75 points like the Vols did before Thanksgiving.

But here's the moment I would pick to tell the story of this particular evening.

It happened midway through the second half.

Djibril Thiam, one of Wyoming's athletic forwards, looked to the basket, gave a pump-fake that got defender Scotty Hopson off his feet.

Thiam headed hard to the rim. So far so good, he must have thought.

Only he didn't get more than a step until another white uniform materialized.

Thiam plowed into Wayne Chism. End of the line.

Charge. Turnover. Tennessee's ball.

And so it went for the Cowboys, over and over in the second half.

"Our second-half defense was impressive to me,'' said coach Bruce Pearl. "That's how you win games.''

Wyoming shot 46.2 percent the first half. It shot 26.3 percent the second.

Wyoming scored 41 points in the first half, 17 in the second.

Wyoming made five 3-pointers the first half, zero the second.

The Cowboys won the boards 23-16 the first half, the Vols by a 15-13 margin the second.

That's how you win games. But it wasn't that apparent early in the second half.

Wyoming, which had led by 10 points in the first half, was hanging tough at 52-49 after Afam Muojeke's basket with 15:30 to play.

Hmmm. Remember what happened last time Wyoming brought a team to Knoxville?

Could lightning strike twice, on either side of the G-10 garage?

Well, no.

The Cowboys would manage only two more field goals. The last of them came at the 9:02 mark.

And so a one-point game at halftime became a 19-point game at the end.

"There really wasn't nothing said by the coaches (at halftime),'' UT Tyler Smith reported, "it was on the players.

"We wanted to protect our home court by showing we can guard.''

The Vols can guard this year.

What we know about Bruce Pearl teams after four seasons is that they're going to be at or near the top of the offensive stat rankings.

Scoring, shooting, 3-balls, that's old hat.

But check the SEC defensive stats this year.

Tennessee is second in scoring defense (60.5 points), second in field-goal defense (37.8 percent), second in 3-point defense (28.8 percent).

A year ago, most of UT's newcomers were a defensive liability. That's no longer the case.

"We always had it last year,'' said Smith, "where three guys were on and two were off or four were on. Everybody's clicking now.

"It showed in the second half when we only let 'em score 17 points.''

Pearl knew that a year of seasoning would give those former new guys a better understanding of how to play team defense.

But he had to see if the effort would materialize to deliver the goods.

"They had some good teachers in Tyler, Wayne and J.P. (Prince),'' Pearl said.

"It's Bobby (Maze) getting better, Cam (Tatum) getting better, Scotty getting better, Brian (Williams) getting better and Melvin (Goins) coming in as a good defensive player.

"Tyler and Wayne appreciate that. They're not out there as the only high-IQ defensive players.''

It's true. They do appreciate it.

"You can see,'' said Chism, "a lot of things have changed on this team that we didn't have last year.''

That's how you win more games.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6276.

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Comments » 8

huntined#565710 writes:

Great second half play..

pupvol writes:

man! we need some kind of set plays in half court! can't rely on twenty something turnovers against Kansas, Kentucky, etc....

lomas98 writes:

If you look at last years final four and elite 8 teams, most were ranked very high in defensive stats. I like the way this team is playing defense. And we can rely on 20 turnovers against KY and Kansas if we are a good defensive team. Maybe the crowd will start to get off their hands and get loud to help the defense too. It seems they are the loudest when they want to complain about a call.

informedintennessee writes:

in response to pupvol:

man! we need some kind of set plays in half court! can't rely on twenty something turnovers against Kansas, Kentucky, etc....

I couldn't agree more. I enjoy the occasional run and gun, but as a deliberate offense, it is so annoying to watch--especially when they are not scoring any points off of it. Half the time in the first half, most of the team did not even run the full court. They came out in the second half with a much better effort, but we won't get far in the SEC without a more discliplined attack.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to lomas98:

If you look at last years final four and elite 8 teams, most were ranked very high in defensive stats. I like the way this team is playing defense. And we can rely on 20 turnovers against KY and Kansas if we are a good defensive team. Maybe the crowd will start to get off their hands and get loud to help the defense too. It seems they are the loudest when they want to complain about a call.

Agreed. UK turns it over a LOT. We will need to take care of ourselves for that to matter, however.

pupvol writes:

in response to PETE_BELL:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

yeah Pearl's like Kevin O"neil used to be here. they both need an offensive coordinator!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to informedintennessee:

I couldn't agree more. I enjoy the occasional run and gun, but as a deliberate offense, it is so annoying to watch--especially when they are not scoring any points off of it. Half the time in the first half, most of the team did not even run the full court. They came out in the second half with a much better effort, but we won't get far in the SEC without a more discliplined attack.

I agree that the Vols are seldom pretty on offense, but consider that much of that seemingly pointless running in the first half might have tired the Cowboys out to the point that UT could throttle them in the second. It was sometimes annoying to me to watch the deliberate, precise, half-court-oriented offenses of Mears and DeVoe, but it was fine as long as they won. Try to have that attitude when watching Pearl's Vols and you will enjoy them more.

johnlg00 writes:

PS: At 12:14pm, I meant to say, "We will need to take of the ball ourselves for that to matter, however."

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