KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl didn't know what to expect with four of his players suspended.
He was pleasantly surprised.
Wayne Chism, one of the six scholarship players left, scored 18 points, leading the Volunteers (No. 15 ESPN/USA Today, No. 16 AP) to an 88-71 victory over Charlotte on Wednesday night.
"The guys obviously stepped up and played with confidence, played with freedom, played with energy," Pearl said. "When things don't go well sometimes, the people that have your back are your family. They're the ones that come to your aid first. Our Tennessee family is pulling together."
The Vols (11-2) were without Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams and Melvin Goins, who combine to average 32.2 points, 14.7 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. Pearl suspended the four indefinitely after they were arrested Friday on gun and drug charges.
Pearl bolstered his rotation with three walk-ons against the 49ers (10-4), a team that had upset Louisville by 22 points earlier this season. All six scholarship players scored in double figures.
The home crowd was as loud as its been all season, and the Vols fanned out through the stands after the game to personally thank the fans for their support in the wake of the arrests.
"We know they did not know what to expect. I didn't know what to expect," Pearl said. "The team really felt their energy."
Tennessee shot 59.4 percent in the first half, and a three-point play by Bobby Maze gave the Vols a 54-29 lead just after halftime. Charlotte answered with a 21-2 run, and a jumper by DiJuan Harris cut the lead to 56-50 with 13:02 to go.
"We panicked for a minute, but the panic went away faster than any time we've ever had a panic on this team," Chism said.
The limited rotation forced Pearl to slow down his trademark press, to the dismay of Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz. The 49ers typically do well against pressing teams, upsetting both Louisville this season and Clemson in 2008 as those teams played a similar press to Tennessee.
"Everyone was talking about who they didn't have, but we tried to focus as a coaching staff on who they did have," Lutz said. "They had great players -- obviously not as deep -- and couldn't play the style they wanted, but to be honest we wish they would have pressed us. We love when teams press us."
Charlotte led 14-11 early in the first half as the 49ers fans in attendance chanted the theme to the television show "Cops." Tennessee launched a 14-0 run that ended when Maze fought under the basket to get a layup that gave the Vols a 25-14 lead 13:13 before halftime.
Tennessee had another 14-0 run in the half and were up 51-29 at halftime, sending the Tennessee fans into a frenzy.
Despite missing two post players in Smith and Williams, the Vols had 48 points in the paint. The 49ers relied on their shooting, hitting only 36.2 percent of their shots.
Entering the game, Charlotte had won three straight and four of the previous five meetings in the series with Tennessee, including one in the first round of the 2001 NCAA tournament. The Vols lead the all-time series 5-4.
Pearl knows his Vols won't be able to sneak up on anyone else. It's unlikely the four suspended players will return before Sunday, when Tennessee hosts No. 1 Kansas, so the new rotation must learn how to keep up the intensity.
"It's important that the players don't celebrate too much," he said. "With Kansas and the [Southeastern Conference season] staring us in the face, we know what challenges lie ahead."
Nike Men's Tennessee Volunteers Tennessee Orange ELITE Shooter Long Sleeve ShirtShop
Maryland point guard Melo Trimble, considered a lock to leave the program before struggling in the second half last season, has withdrawn from the NBA draft and will return for his junior season.
Louisville's Chinanu Onuaku, who recently underwent a medical procedure to correct a heart rhythm issue detected during the combine, will keep his name in the NBA draft pool.
Andrew White III will return to the Nebraska men's basketball team next season after removing his name from the NBA draft.
|Texas San Antonio||3-15||13||5-27|