So their 79-48 victory over league-worst Georgia on Wednesday night surely didn’t hurt.
“Every game right now for us is like a championship game,” guard J.P. Prince said. “That ring’s on the line right now. It’s hanging above us and we want it.”
After a disappointing loss at Auburn on Saturday seemed to threaten the Vols’ standing in the SEC East, the win over the Bulldogs put them in a four-way tie for first in the division with Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina — all teams Tennessee (15-8, 6-3) must still face this season.
“Our future schedule does not favor us,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “I know we could lose all of our remaining games, or we could win them all.”
Georgia’s woes continued to grow in its fourth game after coach Dennis Felton was fired. The Bulldogs (9-15, 0-9), who are on an 11-game losing skid for the first time since 1974, committed 25 turnovers, the most in an SEC game this season.
“I have to use everything I’ve done in 40 years of coaching. We’re trying to keep the kids going. They have to play for each other, they’ve got to be more together than splintered and they’ve got to continue to try and do the things that enable them to stay in games and win one in the end,” interim coach Pete Herrmann said.
“It’s going to be a real challenge as we go through February,” he said.
Tennessee used a 9-0 run to jump ahead early, and a Tyler Smith layup with 13:23 in the first half gave the Vols a 16-3 lead.
Georgia managed to turn the ball over several ways — knocking it out of bounds, a 5-second violation, shot clock violations and offensive fouls.
By halftime the Bulldogs had 17 turnovers, equal to their number of rebounds and one fewer than the number of shots they took. Tennessee scored 21 points off those turnovers and held a 40-23 lead at the break.
Terrance Woodbury scored a basket for Georgia after halftime, but Tennessee scored the next eight points. The Vols, who never trailed, led by as many as 33 off a fastbreak layup by Brian Williams that made it 70-37 with 4:52 left.
Tennessee has won 10 straight meetings in the series and holds an 89-51 overall margin.
Wayne Chism scored 13 points for the Vols, Scotty Hopson had 12, J.P. Prince added 11 and Williams had 10. Prince’s team-leading nine rebounds were a career high.
Trey Thompkins led Georgia with 10 points.
The 31-point margin of victory was the Vols’ largest of the season, and with about three minutes left in the game Pearl began playing practice squad members.
“It is tough to see Georgia go through such tough times,” Pearl said. “It is what happens when they have a coaching change in midseason. Pete Herrmann is doing the best he can do. I just hope they hang in there.”