Vols Fend Off Pesky Bulldogs, 81-76

Feb. 25, 2009

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Player of the Game: Scotty Hopson

By: Josh Battle

Scotty Hopson earned Player of the Game honors tonight in the Vol's 81-76 win over SEC West opponent Mississippi State. The freshman guard scored a career-high 21 points, shooting 7-of-11 from the floor including 3-of-6 from behind the arc. He finished 4-of-6 from the free-throw line including six rebounds, three assists in his 31 minutes of play, the most minutes he's recorded since his 31-minute performance against South Carolina in January.

With Tennessee heading into the final week of the regular season and the SEC and NCAA Tournaments in their sights, Hopson recognized the importance of grabbing another home-win.

"I wanted to come out and be aggressive from the start," Hopson said.

And for Hopson, that start wouldn't wait for tip-off.

"We work hard in warm-ups to try and get a rhythm going and that's basically where it starts," Hopson added. "I came out and tried to get open shots and my teammates are good enough to drive-dish and find me. When they find me, I just have to make sure I'm ready and make those shots."

While his offensive production to this point in the season has been up and down, Hopson recognizes the impact he can make on the team heading down this final stretch.

"Me stepping up is really going to contribute to us having more success," Hopson said. "And we need that. When I step up, do what I can and contribute, we win."

Head coach Bruce Pearl agrees with Hopson's assessment of his game-changing potential.

"He was obviously ready to play tonight," Pearl said of Hopson. "He's been patient as a new comer and I think he sees that we need his talent. He's a different level player and he's been more aggressive and this was one of his better games."

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl kept telling Scotty Hopson that he had to be successful for the Volunteers to be successful, too. Hopson took note.

"The downfalls and the losses and all the negativity we had throughout the season -- when we win, we don't see any of that," Hopson said. "So I've got to keep producing and keep stepping up as a player. That's what I'm going to continue to do for this basketball team."

Hopson led Tennessee in scoring for a second straight game on Wednesday night with a career-high 21 points, and the Vols beat Mississippi State 81-76.

He said he was motivated by Tennessee's struggles in their first back-to-back losses in two seasons. He struggled in the loss at Mississippi, scoring only six points, but followed it up with 14 points in a loss at Kentucky.

Those losses put the Vols in a must-win situation for the rest of the season to keep from missing out on the NCAA tournament for the first time in four seasons.

"He knows we cannot win unless he plays like this," Pearl said "It was the fact that our team was struggling that got Hopson going. He has really stepped it up."

Hopson, a freshman who had verbally committed to Mississippi State before signing with Tennessee, hit a jumper with 3:40 to go to give the Vols (17-10, 8-5 Southeastern Conference) a 68-57 lead, their largest of the game.

Mississippi State's sharp-shooting guards used 3-point baskets to whittle Tennessee's lead. The Bulldogs finished 11-for-30 from behind the arc.

A 3-pointer by Barry Stewart cut the Vols' margin to 77-74 with 31 seconds left. But it was as close as the Bulldogs would get.

Tyler Smith sank two free throws for Tennessee with 28 seconds left, and Ravern Johnson missed a follow-up 3-point attempt for Mississippi State.

The Vols managed to shut down the country's most prolific shot-blocking team. The Bulldogs average 8.2 blocks per game, thanks largely to Jarvis Varnado's efforts, but Mississippi State had only four against Tennessee.

Bobby Maze added 14 points for Tennessee, Tyler Smith had 13 and Wayne Chism 12.

"When they have perimeter guys have big nights, it helps their team so much," Mississippi coach Rick Stansbury said. "Most of the time it's Chism and Smith and the perimeter is up and down. But Maze and Hopson both had big nights and they were the difference in the game."

Stewart led Mississippi State (17-11, 7-6) with 20 points. Johnson added 18 points, and Dee Bost had 17.

Behind 26-21 with 5:01 left before halftime, Tennessee launched a 10-2 run to close out the first half and take a 31-28 lead into the break.

Mississippi State scored the first two points of the second half off free throws by Johnson, but the Vols slowly built their lead with the help of Bulldogs turnovers.

"We just rushed it a little tonight," Stewart said. "Turnovers were key and we helped them make a run.

The Vols have now won five straight over the Bulldogs and avoided their first three-game SEC losing streak under coach Bruce Pearl.

Mississippi State, which may find itself out of the NCAA tournament pool now with the loss, had entered the game undefeated against the SEC East with wins over Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina.





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