February 28, 2007
Vols score big home win
Associated Press/Wade Payne
Florida’s Joakim Noah, top, loses control of the ball as he falls on Tennessee’s Ramar Smith during the second half of their college basketball game Tuesday in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 86-76.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee had Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt belting out “Rocky Top,” and Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning offering motivation in a pregame talk.
Thompson-Boling Arena was near capacity for Senior Night, the Volunteers on the verge of going undefeated at home for the first time in 31 years.
In walked fifth-ranked Florida, the defending national champions who already wrapped up the Southeastern Conference regular-season title, but have struggled lately.
The Gators had no chance.
Tennessee stunned Florida with a 17-0 run in the first half and went on to win 86-76 Tuesday night to finish 16-0 at home.
“We pulled everything out for this one,” coach Bruce Pearl said.
Chris Lofton scored 21 points, while JaJuan Smith added 16 points for Tennessee (21-9, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) and Ramar Smith and Dane Bradshaw each had 10 points.
The Gators (25-5, 12-3) have lost three of four after a 17-game winning streak. With each loss, their chances for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament slip away.
“When we play at home, we’re hard to beat,” Lofton said. “It’s the crowd. You’re at your home gym, and everybody is with you. I feel like we come out and play hard at home.”
In other Top 25 games Tuesday night, No. 12 Pittsburgh beat West Virginia 80-66 and BYU edged No. 25 Air Force 62-58.
Summitt nearly stole the show from the Vols and Gators. She walked onto the court during a timeout in the first half wearing an orange cheerleaders uniform. She started singing “Rocky Top,” and fans joined in. Then Summitt stood atop a short human pyramid formed by two of her assistant coaches.
Summitt was paying back Pearl, who painted himself orange and cheered in the student section at a Lady Vols game last month.
“She didn’t disappoint,” Pearl said.
Manning told the Vols to trust their teammates.
“He talked to us before the game about how your whole team has to win a championship, not by yourself,” Lofton said.
Florida beat Tennessee in Gainesville earlier this season when Lofton was out with a sprained right ankle.
Al Horford led Florida with 17 points, while Chris Richard and Corey Brewer had 12 apiece. Joakim Noah added 11 rebounds and Horford had 10.
“I think our team is in a no-win situation,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “If we had won every game, the questions would have been do you think a loss is good for this team? Do you think you have won too many games? Can they handle this?”
Tennessee was ahead by 19 points at halftime and as many as 27 in the second half.
But the lead wasn’t safe. The Gators had come back from 18 points down to beat Alabama this season.
Florida tried to get back in it with a 14-2 run that included eight points by Noah. His dunk with 9:22 remaining cut it to 67-54.
Tennessee scored again, but the Gators answered with a 7-0 run to pull to 69-61 with 6:08 to go. A drive by Lofton started a 6-0 run for the Vols, and the Gators couldn’t get any closer.
“I think it was our best first half of the season. Everybody was clicking and everybody was hitting shots, just playing good defense,” Lofton said.
Bradshaw, Tennessee’s lone senior, was honored before the final home game. Bradshaw made go-ahead layups in each of the Vols’ wins last year over Florida.
Bradshaw had a steal with 1:33 to go and was fouled by Lee Humphrey. Bradshaw made both free throws. He had gone 12 games without scoring in double digits.
The Vols finished undefeated at home for the first time since 1975-76, and a near-capacity crowd of 24,047 saw the home finale.
Three conference tournaments also began Tuesday.
In the Horizon League, Illinois-Chicago beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee 83-77; Wisconsin-Green Bay defeated Cleveland State 78-59; and Younstown State edged Detroit 82-80.
In the Big South, it was High Point 90, Radford 73; UNC Asheville 77, Coastal Carolina 64; VMI 79, Liberty 78; and Winthrop 72, Charleston Southern 42.
In the Ohio Valley Conference, it was Austin Peay 89, Tennessee State 84 in overtime; Eastern Kentucky 63, Morehead State 45; Samford 70, Murray State 60; and Tennessee Tech 88, Southeast Missouri 60.
No. 12 Pittsburgh 80, West Virginia 66: Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall wore down West Virginia with their inside scoring and rebounding and host Pittsburgh (25-5, 12-3 Big East) remained in contention for the conference’s regular-season title.
Gray keyed a 9-0 run at the start of the second half that reversed a three-point halftime deficit and made it 38-32. Gray scored the first four points of a run finished off by Levance Fields’ 3-pointer.
West Virginia (20-8, 8-7) got to within three points at 54-51, but another 9-0 run gave Pitt its first double-digit lead.
BYU 62, No. 25 Air Force 58: Austin Ainge scored 14 points and Keena Young added 12, including eight straight in a pivotal second-half run, as Brigham Young assured itself at least a share of the Mountain West title.
The Cougars also ended the Falcons’ 30-game winning streak at Clune Arena, where Air Force (23-7, 10-6) had won 54 of 55.
Jimmy Balderson had 11 points and Trent Plaisted 10 as the Cougars (22-7, 12-3) won for the ninth time in 10 games.
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Hampton takes another step
Mike Hampton was back on the mound for the Atlanta Braves, throwing breaking balls for the first time this spring.
Taking another small step in his comeback from major elbow surgery, Hampton threw a handful of curves during five minutes of batting practice Tuesday. He could definitely feel the resistance in his elbow.
“I’m not where I need to be,” Hampton said in Kissimmee, Fla. “It felt good early, then I threw some breaking balls. I didn’t feel as good later in the session as it did earlier.”
Seventeen months ago, doctors cut into Hampton’s left elbow and replaced a damaged ligament — the dreaded Tommy John procedure. The recovery always takes at least a year and, even then, there’s no guarantee that the elbow will feel like it did before, at least not right away.
Hampton, who was hopeful of being 100 percent when he got to spring training, now realizes that he’s still in the midst of rehabilitation.
“There’s going to be good days and bad days,” he said, standing at his locker with a bulky ice pack strapped to his left shoulder. “I just know I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve still got some stuff to accomplish before I can get into a game. That’s just reality.”
Miguel Cabrera, on the other hand, looks ready to go. He homered in the third inning to help the Florida Marlins beat the University of Miami 12-7 in Jupiter, Fla.
“I want to be ready for the season,” said Cabrera, awarded a $7.4 million contract in arbitration this month. “I don’t want to start slow.”
Jeremy Hermida and Joe Borchard also connected for the Marlins, and top prospect Chris Volstad pitched 1 2-3 scoreless innings. Florida faces its first big league opponent today when it plays the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
There are three other games today between major league teams: Detroit vs. the New York Mets; Colorado vs. the Chicago White Sox; and Minnesota vs. Boston.
In other Marlins news, club officials were annoyed to hear that their manager last year, Joe Girardi, gave rival pitcher Jon Lieber helpful tips during the season.
Lieber said his season with the Philadelphia Phillies turned around shortly after he was roughed up by the Marlins last July 31, and he credits a phone call from Girardi, a former major league catcher. They played together with the Chicago Cubs from 2000-02.
“He just mentioned that the hitters said everything that was coming in was just very flat,” Lieber told the Philadelphia Daily News. “I wasn’t on top of the ball like I should have been.”
Both teams contended for the NL wild-card berth, and Lieber beat the Marlins twice in September.
Florida general manager Larry Beinfest declined to comment, but another team official said the front office was angry about the matter. The official requested anonymity because Beinfest wouldn’t comment.
There’s no indication that Marlins executives knew last year about Girardi’s conversation with Lieber. Girardi’s relationship with management quickly soured in his only season with Florida, and he was fired in October — then chosen NL Manager of the Year.
Marlins ace Dontrelle Willis shrugged off the comments about Girardi helping Lieber.
“What are you going to do now?” Willis said. “He doesn’t even work here anymore. You can’t dock his pay.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal. If we lost the wild card by two games, OK. But there are so many different other factors.”
Florida finished 10 games behind NL wild-card winner Los Angeles and seven games behind Philadelphia.
At Mesa, Ariz., Kerry Wood threw 27 pitches in live batting practice for the Chicago Cubs. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Wood will throw another session of live BP on Friday and then the team will determine when he’ll get into a Cactus League game.
At Tampa, Fla., new Yankees pitcher Kei Igawa needed just 19 pitches to cruise through two scoreless innings in an intrasquad game.
“He was good,” manager Joe Torre said. “There’s really no wasted motions. He’s very compact and he goes after it. I think that’s a sign of knowing what you want to do.”
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