LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Tennessee men’s basketball team met its match, falling in the title game of the Old Spice Classic to Gonzaga.
The No. 9-ranked Zags (5-0) held on for an 83-74 victory over 12th-ranked UT (5-1) before a crowd of 3,914 at the Milk House at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex on Sunday night.
“Mark (Few) has his team further along than I have my team, and they are the better-coached team right now,’’ said UT coach Bruce Pearl, who failed in his first attempt to notch 400 career wins. “We got it handed to us. Gonzaga was clearly better than us.’’
UT staged a furious rally, closing from 18 points down with 5:09 left (74-56) to 77-71 on Cameron Tatum’s 3-pointer with 1:32 left.
Tennessee had a chance to cut the lead to four its next trip down the floor, but Brian Williams and Bobby Maze missed two shots apiece within two feet of the basket.
“We’ve got to make the easy shots down low; if we make it there, we’re down four and we could have got in the press and got a steal,’’ said Vols’ junior T yler Smith, who scored a team-high 17 points and was named to the all-tournament team. “But the big thing was our defense; we weren’t talking enough and they shot almost 60 percent (58.3) in the second half.’’
The Zags were the biggest, most experienced team UT had faced, and it showed early when they bolted to a 6-0 lead off the tip en route to a 35-31 halftime advantage.
“There were two keys,’’ said Few, whose Gonzaga team faces the Vols in Knoxville on Jan. 7. “We attacked the pressure, and we got some easy shots.’’
UT outrebounded the Zags 50-26, but its press was largely ineffective in forcing 14 turnovers — only four in the second half.
When Gonzaga wasn’t breaking the press for easy transition baskets, the Zags patiently moved the ball in halfcourt sets, rolling up 17 assists while spreading the scoring.
Steven Gray scored a season-high 19 points to lead five Gonzaga players in double figures. Tournament MVP Jeremy Pargo had 10 points, seven assists and three steals.
The Vols, meanwhile, struggled against Gonzaga’s zone, committing a season-high 21 turnovers while shooting a season-low 35.5 percent.
Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince had five turnovers apiece, and Bobby Ma ze was held below his season average of 6.4 assists, getting two.
Freshman Scotty Hopson was one of UT’s few bright spots, scoring 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting while dishing out a team-high three assists.
Smith said it was good for Hopson and the other young players to feel the intensity of Sunday night’s game.
The tension was unmistakable at the half, as the teams jawed at one another while leaving the court, an animated Pearl stepping between them, yelling himself.
UT returns to action at 7 p.m. Wednesday against UNC-Asheville at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It will be the Vols’ last home game until a Dec. 20 contest with Belmont.
UT plays at Temple on Dec. 13 before playing Marquette in Nashville on Dec. 16.