Dec. 11, 2010
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Top 10, Top 5, Tennessee doesn't care. To the Volunteers, the only way to beat good teams is to play them, even if it's far away from Knoxville.
Even if it's in Pittsburgh, where non-conference opponents go years and years without winning.
Scotty Hopson missed only three shots while slicing through No. 3 Pitt's defense for a career-high 27 points and Tennessee (No. 13 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP) dealt the Panthers their first nonconference loss in Pittsburgh in nearly six years, winning 83-76 on Saturday.
Melvin Goins added 19 points and Cameron Tatum hit a succession of big shots while scoring 14 points as the Volunteers (7-0) opened leads of as many as 21 points against the Panthers (10-1). Pitt needed a late flurry to cut the final margin to single digits.
Brad Wanamaker scored 21 points, but Pitt -- missing 17 free throws -- lost a nonconference game in the city for the first time in 58 games, or since a Jan. 2, 2005, loss to Bucknell.
"They surprised us early on, and until the end of the game they kept bringing it at us nonstop," Wanamaker said.
Tennessee (7-0) and Pitt are similar in size, makeup and a shared ability to play physically at both ends of the court, but with one difference. Tennessee plays more ranked nonconference opponents, and the Vols' confidence level in playing such games showed.
"We've always played a tough schedule and tried to play a tough schedule," coach Bruce Pearl said. "When the opportunity presents itself, if you want to be a Top 25 program, you've got to act like one. The way you act like it is in scheduling."
In the last two seasons, Tennessee has beaten four teams in the Top 5 at the time -- No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 Pitt and No. 5 Ohio State. Pearl is 7-7 against Top 5 teams, the only Tennessee coach to be .500 or better against such highly ranked teams.
Last month, Tennessee beat then-No. 7 Villanova, also of the Big East, in New York.
"It's better to win on the road, especially in hostile environments against a Top 10 team," Tatum said. "You shut the crowd up."
The SEC-Big East Invitational matchup was played at the new Consol Energy Center rather than Pitt's on-campus Petersen Events Center, and it certainly wasn't a home-court advantage for the Panthers.
They hadn't played a team ranked this high in Pittsburgh, outside of Big East play, since a 66-49 loss to then-No. 11 North Carolina in December 1995 -- and it showed.
Pitt couldn't match the Volunteers' size and quickness, especially on the defensive end. The Panthers came in as the nation's No. 1 rebounding team, averaging 16.7 rebounds per game more than their opponents, only to be outrebounded 34-32 as Tobias Harris had seven.
"I think it's a big step for our team," Goins said. "It shows we can play in a hostile environment against a big, tough team."
With Hopson hitting an NBA-length 3-pointer, a baseline jumper and a close-in jumper, Tennessee took leads of 12-6 and 14-9, then ran off seven consecutive points highlighted by Tatum's 3-pointer to take a 21-11 lead with 12½ minutes left in the first half.
"They made tough shots," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "They beat us at our own game. We dug too big a hole to come back from. ... We didn't make free throws and they did. We didn't make 3s in the first half and they did. We didn't make the shots underneath and they did."
Hopson had 16 points by halftime on 6-of-8 shooting and was 10 of 13 overall, 3 for 3 from 3-point range.
By contrast, Pitt's leading scorer, Ashton Gibbs, missed eight of his first nine shots before finishing with 15 points on 4 of 13 shooting. Gilbert Brown also scored 15.
"We showed we can guard," Tatum said. "If we continue to do that we can play with anybody in the country. It's not all about offense that wins championships."
With Goins making 10 of 12 free throws, Tennessee was 22 of 30 at the line to Pitt's 25 of 42, one reason the Panthers never made a real push for the lead.
Brown's dunk with 14:44 remaining made it 47-38 but, after Pearl called a time-out, Hopson quickly scored five points on the next two possessions and the Vols led 52-38.
Tatum stretched the lead to 20 points at 59-39 on a 3-pointer from the wing. As Pitt called a time-out, he turned and smiled, holding up three fingers on each hand.