Tennessee struggling to preserve big second-half leads

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's struggles at protecting double-digit leads are hindering its surprising quest for an NCAA Tournament bid.

The Volunteers (13-10, 5-5 SEC) led by at least 13 points in the second half of each of their last two losses. Had they hung on in both those situations, they'd be on a six-game winning streak.

Instead, Tennessee must regroup for Wednesday's home game with Mississippi (14-9, 5-5), which already has rallied to beat the Vols once this season. Tennessee led 52-39 with 15 minutes left in an 80-69 loss at Ole Miss on Jan. 17.

''We have to learn it's hard,'' Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. ''But it's supposed to be hard. It's not supposed to be easy. Now the question is will they embrace that and realize that now you have to play - and play for 40 minutes.''

Tennessee is coming off a 64-59 loss at Mississippi State that snapped a four-game winning streak and marked its biggest collapse of the season.

The Vols raced to a 17-2 advantage Saturday and led by as many as 19 in the first half. Tennessee was still in front 41-23 with 17 minutes left before getting outscored 41-18 the rest of the way.

Tennessee has led by at least 13 points in four of its last seven losses, as it also blew a 15-point lead in a 73-71 setback at No. 8 North Carolina and a 13-point edge in an 82-78 home defeat against Arkansas .

That reflects the immaturity of a team that regularly starts three freshmen, though the Vols have outperformed expectations. Picked to finish 13th out of 14 Southeastern Conference teams before the season, the Vols are 35th in the RPI.

But as the stakes grow higher, these blown leads get more painful.

''You know why it's difficult?'' Barnes asked. ''One reason - because we expect to win now. In the past, I don't think people thought we'd win. That's why it's difficult.''

Because the Vols are so young, they need senior Robert Hubbs III to break out of his mini-slump.

In two games since being named SEC player of the week, Hubbs has averaged 7.5 points - well below his season average of 14.3 - while shooting a combined 4 of 19. Barnes said Hubbs has been dealing with a knee problem.

Barnes broke down different reasons for Tennessee's two most recent losses.

Tennessee went on a 21-1 spurt during a stretch of about 6 + minutes midway through the Ole Miss contest, but Barnes noted that the Rebels pretty much controlled the rest of the game.

In the Mississippi State game, Tennessee got outrebounded and struggled to take care of the ball Saturday during the Bulldogs' comeback. Barnes also disagreed with a goaltending call and a charging foul that went against Tennessee late in the game.

''You're going to get tough breaks here and there,'' Barnes said. ''It always seems like you get the tough ones when the momentum's not going (your way) and you always feel like the team that's being more aggressive and coming back gets the calls.''

Barnes hopes the experience will teach his players to be more aggressive the next time the momentum starts to swing against them.

''It goes back to being focused and understanding it's a 40-minute game,'' Barnes said. ''The question really should be what do you do to flip (the momentum) back. If you don't get aggressive and play to win as opposed to just playing and hoping the game gets over with and you're on top, you're not going to flip it back.''

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More AP College Basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

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