Bruce Pearl's gameplan today was excellent, and in stretches the Vols executed it really well. That was especially true early, when UT jumped out to a 21-13 lead in the first twelve minutes, and had 18 points in the paint before UConn had any. The Huskies battled back, as good teams do, and we had a very compelling ballgame on our hands. With 8:30 to play, UConn led 52-51.
But in the final 8:30 the Vols were outscored 20-10, and made only one shot - a Tobias Harris score that cut the lead to five with five to play - from 8:30 to 3:07. During that five-and-a-half minute stretch, Tennessee shot 1 for 6 with three turnovers, and the game was lost.
Still, Tennessee did a lot of things today that gave them every opportunity to win. Melvin Goins was sensational: 15 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and only 1 turnover. And the Vols got good play from their bench: Steven Pearl had back-to-back baskets, and Josh Bone was solid with 6 points. Coming into today, we would've considered all of that gravy.
But both teams made it their business to take away the other's best player. Tennessee held Kemba Walker to his lowest point total of the season, 16 on 6 of 17 from the floor (here again, Goins was outstanding). Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris combined for just 23 points on 9 of 23 shooting.
When stars fade, you have to find another way to get it done. UConn, to their credit, did exactly that against Pearl's gameplan. The Vols focused on Walker and gave open looks to the Huskies from the arc, where UConn was shooting 32% coming into today, mostly due to Walker and Shabazz Napier. Those two went 1 of 7 from the arc today. The rest of the team went 8 of 12. I tip my cap to that - the plan was solid, UConn just outshot it with three guys who were sub-30% three point shooters coming into today.
The Vols still found themselves in it...but our great success in the paint in the first twelve minutes turned into great frustration the rest of the way.
The number isn't that crazy - the Vols had 12 turnovers (so did UConn), which is actually just under our season average. But in a tight game like this between two good teams, every possession counts. We knew UConn would block shots - they had 6, under their average of 6.9, which leads the nation. We knew we'd have to keep attacking.
And the Vols got good looks inside...but after the first twelve minutes, the Vols spent more time putting the ball on the floor than in the basket.
John Fields had hands of stone: four turnovers, all dropped balls in the paint, most of which came when he had good position to score. And Scotty Hopson had five turnovers, again showing an inability to score consistently at the rim (9 of his 13 points came from the arc).
Those two particularly, along with a critical turnover by Skylar McBee late in the second half, hurt Tennessee more than anything else. The gameplan was great, Walker was slowed and Goins was great, our bench gave us the points we needed, and even with UConn knocking it down from three, we were right there...and Fields and Hopson literally gave it away.
These are the sort of games you have to learn from, so you don't get beat the same way in March. The lesson here isn't complicated: hold on to the basketball. You can't score without it, and when you give it away against a solid transition team like UConn, you invite disaster.
Despite the gameplan, the Vols deserved to lose today. Credit UConn for hitting shots, but also credit them for not making the mistakes that cost UT. Playing at home certainly helps, but the Huskies are younger than the Vols, yet were the more mature team today. Pearl's motto is passion, poise, and purpose...when we lose poise, it greatly affects the other two. Turnovers inside led to a love affair with the three (6 of 20 - in a game where points were available in the paint, 20 attempts is too many for a team that doesn't shoot that well from the outside), and as UConn made their late run we lost some of our passion.
It's encouraging to know that Tennessee is still capable of giving themselves a chance to win against the nation's elite. But the Vols have to take better care of things on their own end, and perhaps next time the outcome will be different.
If this team wants to really do something impressive and show it's grown, it'll blow out LSU in Knoxville on Wednesday night. Either way, the next four games should be wins. No excuses, and we keep moving forward.