It was fewer than two minutes into the second half when Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl waved his arms and begged the fans to get involved.
The only problem was that at that time most of the 19,123 at Bridgestone Arena for the first of Friday’s two quarterfinal sessions of the Southeastern Conference tournament had no rooting interest. The overwhelming majority of them were dressed in blue and content with the fact that their top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats already had advanced to the semifinals with a victory earlier in the day.
So it was that the Volunteers were forced to find their own inspiration in what was a back-and-forth affair with Ole Miss.
They got it not long after when Renaldo Woolridge made a 3-point shot. The only basket of the game for the sophomore forward – his only shot, to be exact – gave them a five-point lead, their first of more than a basket, and propelled them to a 76-65 victory.
“When your bench players come in and make plays, it’s a boost to the whole team’s morale,” senior forward J.P. Prince, who had a game-high 17 points, said. “I’m real proud that he stayed ready and took that shot with confidence.”
With its second triumph in as many days, Tennessee (25-7) earned a spot in Saturday’s first semifinal opposite Kentucky. Tip-off is scheduled for noon (CST).
“When we play Kentucky (on Saturday), we've really got to be focused because they're going to have the whole arena,” senior forward Wayne Chism (16 points, 15 rebounds) said. “You saw that (Friday) when they played. They had the whole arena. So we've really got to come out and be very patient against these guys because they're going to have the crowd on their side.”
Woolridge did not even play in Thursday’s first-round victory over LSU or in the first half against Ole Miss, when there were seven lead changes and the Vols trailed by as many as six.
With 14:45 to play in the game, 21 seconds after Wayne Chism had given UT 46-44 lead, Woolridge took aim and from the corner just in front of the UT bench and buried the first of the Volunteers’ five second-half 3-pointers.
“It was a rhythm shot – I was in a good rhythm,” Woolridge said. “Everybody on the bench was telling me to shoot it. That’s what Coach wants me to do – go in and make shots.
“It is tough to stay ready, but that’s what you have to do because you never know when you’re going to get your opportunity.”
He ended the ensuing Ole Miss possession with a blocked shot, and the led grew to nine, 53-44, before the Rebels finally scored again. Tennessee then repeatedly got to the foul line and stretched its advantage to as many as 12.
The Rebels (21-10) kept the pressure on early with their own 3-point shooting. They were 6-for-12 in the first half but made just 3-for-13 in the second half.
Chris Warren made five of 12 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 16 points. Zach Graham added 15 points, which included three 3-pointers.
Neither made any that had the impact of Woolridge’s one.
Friday's other games at Bridgestone Arena