Tennessee and coach Bruce Pearl's reign atop college basketball lasted only slightly longer than a Kelvin Sampson recruiting call. But a lack of poise or strategy wasn't what sealed the Vols' fate against Vanderbilt. It was their legs.
So don't write them off come tournament time just because the 18th-ranked Commodores handled Tennessee's vaunted pressure and rode Shan Foster's hot hand to a 72-69 upset. The Vols aren't going away.
Despite plenty of evidence that his kids simply ran out of gas, Pearl said instead, ``We just kind of ran out of time.''
That's understandable, since Pearl was the second-fastest NCAA coach to reach 300 wins, and he likes to do everything in a hurry.
But the Vols and their coach were in rarified air to begin with, topping The Associated Press poll for the first time in the program's 99-year history after a gutsy win over previously unbeaten Memphis on the western edge of the state on Saturday night.
And the schedule-makers did them no favors. The trip to Nashville not only ruled out any chance of an extended celebration, it meant the Vols would be playing their second rivalry game in the span of three days.
One thing Pearl had going for him, however, is that the answers to any questions about how the just-arrived men's program at Tennessee should handle the top ranking were available in an office just down the hall.
Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt occupies that one on the Knoxville campus, and with seven Division I titles in 34 seasons, the most wins of any coach at that level and more weeks at No. 1 than anyone this side of Tiger Woods, it's hard to find a better resource on how to build and sustain a successful program.
``I didn't make it to any of Bruce's practices the last few days, but unless it's the last game of the season,'' she said early Tuesday, ``the thing I always try to drive home after a big win is, 'Nobody is going to mail you the trophy yet. You proved on the court you're one of the best teams in the country. Congratulations. Now comes the challenge of staying there.'''
The funny thing is that Summitt thinks she's had the chance to learn at least as much from Pearl since he arrived in 2005 as he has from her. The No. 3-ranked Lady Vols are defending national champions, but she's been troubled all season long ``because there doesn't seem to be a great sense of urgency.
``A lot of times, when people have goals and reach them, complacency sets in. That's what I admire about Bruce and his staff. They play and practice all the time not just like they're hungry, but like they're starved to death. I really believe they'll be ready tonight.''
Nobody gets it right every time out, and as hard as the Vols played in spurts, their desire was undercut by fatigue. When the teams met earlier this season in Knoxville, Vanderbilt turned the ball over 22 times, shot just 3-for-21 from 3-point range because of Tennessee's relentless defense and lost by 20 points.
Back home at Memorial Gym, where the Commodores have knocked each of the past four teams to visit as No. 1 off the pedestal, they committed just eight turnovers and Foster was 6-for-9 from beyond the arc.
``They came out with the passion and played with more intensity than us,'' said Chris Lofton, who led Tennessee with 25 points. ``They wanted it more than us tonight, and it showed. They got the win and they deserved it.''
Pearl looked every bit as exhausted as his players, something his friends have picked up on. After the Memphis win, a few told him, ``'Coach, you don't look good.''' His response was, ``We're 25-2, I don't care what I look like.''
dn't done since eighth grade.
``Tennessee has been known for football and obviously women's basketball, we've had success in other sports and I always knew if the right person came along,'' she said, ``we could do the same with men's basketball. His willingness to speak across the state, to do charity work, to do everything but sell tickets door-to-door is why he's been embraced so strongly by the community.''
The college basketball establishment has been a little slower to come around. Almost 20 years ago, Pearl was an assistant coach at Iowa who was getting his brains beat out on the recruiting trail by his counterpart at Illinois and chose a very messy way to get even. He secretly taped a phone call to an Illinois recruit named Deon Thomas and started the ball rolling on an NCAA investigation that cost the Illini a shot at the 1991 postseason, a handful of scholarships and three years of heartburn.
Never mind that the scandal probably cost Pearl as much or more, at least in terms of career advancement. He won a Division II title at Southern Indiana in 1995, but couldn't find work at a bigger shop until Wisconsin-Milwaukee gave him a shot four seasons later. A trip to the Sweet 16 four seasons after that opened the door at Tennessee.
``He's got a way of making everyone around him feel special. You see that, obviously, with his players, but it goes far beyond that. I've got a feeling,'' she said, ``he's going to be around here for a while.''
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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