BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - JaJuan Smith and Tennessee felt
slighted, and it showed in their shoes.
Believing the Volunteers deserved better, Smith wrote "No. 1
seed" on his orange-and-white sneakers. Facing a team making its
NCAA tournament debut, it was hardly a walkover.
Sluggish at the start and outhustled nearly the whole way, the
second-seeded Vols avoided a massive upset, breaking away from
American 72-57 Friday in the first round of the East Regional.
"Our kids were obviously disappointed they didn't get a No. 1
seed," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "But we're still a long
way from where that would make a difference."
Ahead 53-51 with 5:45 left, Tennessee (30-4) held the
15th-seeded Eagles to only one basket the rest of the way.
"We just weren't playing our game," Smith said. "We were a
little sloppy, but we turned it on at the end."
Smith finished with 19 points. Wayne Chism added 16 and helped
Tennessee wear down the Eagles.
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.,
Tennessee seemed to almost miss its wake-up call.
Tied at 40 with 11 minutes left, Tennessee finally put together
a 10-0 run with Smith hitting a big 3-pointer. A pair of 3s by
Brian Gilmore gave American (21-12) its late chance.
"Coach prepared us for a close game. He's been telling us all
week long how close this game was going to be," Smith said. "We
were well prepared, been getting up early in the morning for this
American was trying to become the fifth No. 15 seed to pull an
upset in the tourney. The Eagles wound up much like Belmont against
Duke on Thursday night - close, but not quite.
"I thought they came in confident. I thought they came in
knowing that they could play with us," Pearl said. "I think
watching Belmont last night had to be encouraging for them."
"We watched the game and basically just reinforced what can
happen when the ball's thrown in the air. Because the seedings are
just numbers next to a name," Carr said. "Belmont put it all on
the line. It just another example of many in the past of 15s
playing 2s tough."
Carr, the MVP of the Patriot League tournament, poured in 24
points. The sharpshooter tried to keep American 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 a staggered series of hard picks.
"One person can't guard him. He comes off eight or nine
screens," Tennessee star guard Chris Lofton said. "I had to take
a break in the first half. I was dead."
The Vols looked out of synch in the Southeastern Conference
tournament, and their so-so showing cost them a top seeding.
It carried over against the Eagles, who showed no fear. They
attacked the basket against taller Tennessee and dominated the
His face red from hollering, Pearl called timeout after 6½
minutes for a shout session with his team trailing 9-5.
Tennessee relies on a controlled brand of chaos, but they
struggled at the start and Lofton was a nonfactor. Starter Ramar
Smith sat out the first half.
"I was playing bad," Smith said. "It was a coach's
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 held 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 of its cheerleaders
stumble out of an overhead lift.