Dec. 23, 2010
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl made sure his players didn't leave the locker room feeling too happy heading into their holiday break.
The Volunteers (No. 18 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP) finally ended a three-game losing skid with a 66-65 win over Belmont on Thursday night but blew a 13-point lead and needed a layup by Scotty Hopson with 5.7 seconds left to get the victory.
"That was certainly a win that we needed, but it's not one that I feel great about," Pearl said after spending more time than usual in the locker room following the game. "That was not a happy locker room. I want them coming back right and ready."
Tennessee (8-3) has never lost four games in a row during Pearl's six seasons at the helm but was on the verge of doing that after following up a 7-0 start and a win over No. 3 Pittsburgh on Dec. 11 with narrow losses to Oakland, Charlotte and Southern California.
"This is great. We need to build on this," said Hopson, who had a combined 15 points in the losses to Oakland and USC. "Even though we just won by one, we know we're a much better team than this. They picked us to finish fourth in the [Southeastern Conference East Division], and we've still got that to look at in the back of our minds and we know we've got to progress."
The Vols had a 62-56 lead with 2:47 to go, but the Bruins (9-3) scored the next seven points. Jon House was fouled by Brian Williams as he hit a layup with 48 seconds left to make it 63-62, but he missed the foul shot.
Hopson, who scored the final nine points for Tennessee, hit a pair of free throws, and Belmont's Mitch Hedgepeth answered with a layup. After a Bruins timeout, Williams and Kenny Hall cleared the lane for Hopson, who drove through and hit his game-winning basket.
"The kid made a good play," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "I didn't scheme very well defensively in the last possession. They had more luck driving on us. They sealed our help inside and we couldn't get there."
Kerron Johnson took a 3-pointer from the wing at the buzzer for the Bruins, but it rimmed out.
Tobias Harris added 17 points and five steals for Tennessee.
Scott Saunders came off the bench to lead Belmont with 12 points. Hedgepeth had 11 and Trevor Noack 10.
Pearl and the Vols knew exactly how dangerous the Bruins would be coming to Knoxville. Tennessee had won the three previous meetings, but all by fewer than 10 points, and Belmont had already visited Thompson-Boling Arena this season in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Nov. 16.
The story was much the same in that game. Belmont rallied from a 17-point deficit with 7 minutes remaining and had two chances in the final 36 seconds to tie the game, but the Vols prevailed 85-76 and went on to win the tournament.
"They certainly have played us as well as anybody at the mid-major level, and I will do everything I can to try not to schedule them again," Pearl said. "I don't know, you had to enjoy that. You had to enjoy some of that execution and obviously a great deal of the drama."
This time Tennessee used free throws in the first half to build a 35-23 halftime lead. The Vols went 22 for 37 from the free throw line overall while Belmont attempted only 10 foul shots, making seven.
The Bruins, normally a 46.2 percent shooting team, went 9 of 38 from the field in the first half and hit only three of 22 3-point shots. Ian Clark, who leads Belmont with an average 12.5 points per game, was scoreless at halftime and finished with six.
Belmont looked much more like itself after the break, making its first four shots for a 9-0 run that cut Tennessee's lead to 35-32, and the Vols never got comfortable after that.
"Coach said that most of them were good shots, they just weren't falling for us. We hit a better percentage in the second half, but we would have liked to have some of those back," Saunders said.