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COACH LEADS RALLY IN ENEMY TERRITORY

Bruce Pearl is a showman and a coach with a bit of tent-revival preacher thrown in for good measure. So with tipoff against the nation's top-ranked team less than two hours away, he held a pep rally with Tennessee fans.

And Pearl promised history.

"All I can tell you is we're 40 minutes away from being No.1," Pearl said after high-fiving fans packed into the private room of a sports restaurant a few blocks away from the FedExForum.

Big words from the coach of a program that never has been ranked first, at least not in men's basketball.

Women's basketball, football? Sure.

But with Pearl, the Volunteers went into Saturday night's showdown with Memphis enjoying a No.2 ranking that is the highest in school history. (The game was not completed by press time. Visit sports.tampabay.com for the result.) And this was the Vols' first time in a No.1 vs. No.2 matchup, the 38th all time and the fifth featuring teams from the same state.

So why not something else to remember for a program that went in 2-10 against No.1 teams, its last victory way back on Dec.2, 1969, against South Carolina?

A loss wouldn't hurt the next goal this season for the Volunteers: their first outright Southeastern Conference championship in 41 years.

It was a lot to take in for Tennessee fans, who sat on the tops of booths for Pearl's pep rally and filled every inch of space even with security trying to keep tabs on the crowd. For Pearl, it was part of a logical progression from when a crowd of 22,000 watched his first Tennessee game less than three seasons ago.

"It's an unbelievable feeling," Pearl said.

The pep rally was part of a viewing party organized by Memphis-area alumni from the University of Tennessee, but this wasn't the first time Pearl has done this.

He met with fans before tipoff against Memphis two seasons ago, part of how he works to build support from one end of the Volunteer State to the western tip 390 miles from home.

Don Corey, a 1970 graduate of Tennessee and now an educator in Shelby County, said he was at the event two years ago when only 50 people met with Pearl. He was waiting to listen to Pearl in a crowd of about 300 on Saturday before heading over with six others to buy tickets, even if he had to wait until after tipoff.

"It's unbelievable. He's unbelievable," Corey said of Pearl's charisma and friendliness with fans. "He acts that way all the time."

Pearl told the lucky fans who had tickets to cheer loudly for the Vols. He left after spending less than three minutes in the room.

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