Losing becomes contagious. Like a virus it can worm its way in and weaken a body and a brain.
"You're worrying about things you shouldn't be worrying about,'' senior Cameron Tatum said Tuesday night.
"You start to play not to lose instead of just playing the game.''
Bull's-eye. That was an apt description of Tennessee's men's basketball team here lately. December had been one long losing streak for the Vols as they arrived at Thompson-Boling Arena to play UNC Asheville.
Tatum's analysis remained up to date for three-fourths of the evening. The Bulldogs, who had never previously beaten Tennessee in seven tries, were on their way to making history, leading 53-45 as the clock moved under 10 minutes.
Another word from Tatum:
"I think we played dumb basketball on this losing streak. We were doing stuff out of character.
"We've got to stick to the script. As we get our confidence we'll get aggressive and start playing smarter basketball.''
For all the world it looked as if the Vols were still wearing their knucklehead caps and headed down the same road that had led to losses to mid-
majors Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston.
Asheville came out of the halftime break and hit six of its first eight shots to expand its lead to 51-42. The Vols were initially so tentative they looked as if, well, as if they didn't want to go to a lower-tier bowl game.
But, surprise. This one had a happy ending for a crowd announced at 15,324. Tennessee toughed out a 72-68 win, its first since Chaminade at the tail end of the Maui Invitational.
In the category of quotes you haven't heard from an opposing coach lately, consider Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach's opening statement.
"They're a good team defensively,'' said Biedenbach.
The Vols, in fact, were, once they buckled down. After Asheville's 6-of-8 barrage to open the second half, the Bulldogs finished 3-of-16 until the final horn.
Another nugget from Biedenbach that was as sweet as a Christmas carol to Cuonzo Martin's ears:
"They played hard and that was the main advantage they had.''
Martin, the first-year UT coach, has been looking for that hardness in the first six weeks of his new season. He saw it as his team clawed from behind, caught and passed the feisty Bulldogs.
"Our guys did a great job for the first time of being down and finding a way to win the game,'' said Martin.
They made shots and they stopped Asheville from making shots. Basketball is really pretty simple.
Tatum, who could not buy a basket at the concession stand in the losses to Austin Peay and Charleston, hit two long treys in a little over a minute, the second one giving UT a 56-55 lead, its first since 2-0.
Then he hit another to erase Asheville's last lead, 59-58.
Any losing-streak virus that might have been setting up camp in Tatum's head was expelled.
"I just tell him to keep shooting,'' Martin said. "Don't look at me on the bench. I don't have any answers for you.''
Is this hard-fought win over a Big South Conference team the answer that will turn UT's season in a positive direction?
By this point, victory almost seemed like an upset. To their credit, the fans did not storm the court.
Three more home games await before the Vols hit the road to Memphis on Jan. 4. They can, and should, win all three.
Then the mid-majors go away. After Memphis, the SEC grind begins, with a visit from national champion UConn thrown in for good measure.
Wins will surely remain hard to come by, even if the Vols do play smarter and play harder and stick to the script. Another losing streak inevitably lurks ahead.
But this one is over. When Tennessee takes the court Friday night against ETSU, it won't be playing not to lose. It won't be worrying about things it shouldn't be worrying about.
Just play the game and see where that takes you.