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 Vols moved on to a second-round matchup Sunday with No. 7 seed Butler, which beat South Alabama 81-61.
This 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 making 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 early game.”
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 26 points and hit six 3-pointers. 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 offensive glass.
His face red from hollering, Pearl called timeout after 6 1/2 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 decision.”
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.