American dream: Vols sleepwalk to ugly first-round win

By: Wes Boling Email
By: Wes Boling Email

(WVLT) -- On paper, Tennessee matched up favorably against the 15th-seeded American Eagles in almost every category.

Somebody forgot to tell American.

The Patriot League champs forced the usually frenetic Vols into a tortoise pace, outrebounding the Big Orange by double digits, but Bruce Pearl's squad used its superior athleticism to creep to a 72-57 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

JaJuan Smith's 19 points led Tennessee, who only made 6-of-18 three-point shots, but made up for it by shooting better than 60 percent from two-point range against the undersized Eagles. Chris Lofton only managed four points and missed all five three-point shots he attempted.

When the Vols did miss, they seldom got the rebound; American grabbed 34 boards, while Tennessee managed only 24.

After the Vols scored ten straight points and ventured out to a 50-40 lead, victory appeared to be imminent; however, American got back within one, thanks to hot three-point shooting.

But the Vols went on a 22-8 run from that point on, securing the win and a second-round bout with the winner of the Butler-South Alabama game, to be played right after the UT game.

The win secured a 30-win season, the first in the history of Tennessee basketball.

Tennessee struggled to a 29-22 halftime lead, with only one offensive rebound and two sucessful three-point shots in the first half.

The Vols were only 2-for-11 from beyond the arc and managed only one offensive board in the first half, compared to American's 9.

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) -- JaJuan Smith and Tennessee almost got their wake-up call too late.

Outhustled almost the entire game, the second-seeded Volunteers found their touch at the end and avoided a massive upset, breaking away from American 72-57 Friday in the first round of the East Regional.

Ahead 53-51 with 5:45 left, Tennessee (30-4) escaped from a team making its NCAA tournament debut. The Vols held the 15th-seeded Eagles to only one basket the rest of the way.

The game began at 11:15 a.m. and the public address announcer at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex welcomed fans with: "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen." While American star Garrison Carr and his teammates set their alarms for 6:45 a.m. and came out strong, Tennessee took a lot longer to get going.

Smith finished with 19 points. Wayne Chism added 16 and helped Tennessee expand its late, narrow edge.

Carr, the MVP of the Patriot League tournament, poured in 24 points. The sharpshooter tried to keep American (21-12) close all by himself, taking on the whole Tennessee team in a game of H-O-R-S-E. The Vols threw five different defenders at him, hoping to weave through staggered screens and hard picks.

The Vols felt slighted coming in, believing they deserved more recognition. Smith wrote "No. 1 seed" on his orange-and-white sneakers, but coach Bruce Pearl and Tennessee cost themselves with a sluggish showing in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

It carried over against the Eagles, who showed no fear. They attacked the basket against taller Tennessee and dominated the offensive glass.

His face red from hollering, Pearl called timeout after 6 minutes for a shout session with his team trailing 9-5.

Tennessee relies on a controlled brand of chaos, but looked out of whack in the early going as star guard Chris Lofton was mostly a nonfactor. Starter Ramar Smith did not play in the first half -- the Vols didn't offer an early explanation of why he was held out.

Tied at 40 with 11 minutes left, Tennessee put together a 10-0 run with JaJuan Smith hitting a big 3-pointer.

The frenzied pace later reached its zenith during a 10-second sequence that included Lofton's steal, a behind-the-back pass, a monster block and an American player diving out of bounds to save a loose ball. No points, but breathtaking action.

American was trying to become the fifth No. 15 seed to pull an upset in the tourney. In the end, the Eagles wound up just like Belmont against Duke on Thursday night -- close, but not quite.

Tennessee has played half its games against teams that made the NCAA tournament field. That didn't daunt a smaller team that lost at Brown this season -- the Eagles threw their bodies around more than the Vols and finished with a 39-27 rebounding edge, including 18-6 on the offensive end.

A quick look along the baseline revealed which team came from a big-time sports program. The Vols featured a black-sequined dance team and a hound dog mascot with two different outfits; American trotted out an Eagles mascot in a shopworn costume and saw one its cheerleaders stumble out of an overhead lift.


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