The Tennessee basketball team came out against North Carolina A&T intent on putting the worst loss of the Bruce Pearl era behind them.
The 16th-ranked Vols jumped to a 22-0 lead en route to a 99-78 victory before a crowd of 17,759 at Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night.
By halftime, Tennessee (9-2) managed as many points (55) against North Carolina A&T (4-8) as it scored in 40 minutes in the 22-point loss at Southern Cal last Saturday in the most lopsided defeat of Pearl’s five-year tenure with the Vols.
UT’s defense had much to do with the strong start, forcing 23 of the Aggies’ 34 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
Tyler Smith had 16 points and led the Vols with four steals, and Scotty Hopson and J.P. Prince added 10 points apiece.
“My teammates have been telling me to keep my head up and keep working hard, because you never know when you’ll get the opportunity,’’ said 6-foot-8 Hall, who had been slowed by illness most of December. “I’m happy about tonight, but it’s not too much to brag about. I’m more happy for my teammates, and I wish I would have gotten more rebounds (four).’’
Hall played 13 minutes and sophomore Renaldo Woolridge played a season-high 17 minutes on account of Wayne Chism being limited to eight minutes by a bruised pelvis.
It was arguably Woolridge’s best all-around performance with the Vols; he scored nine points, pulled down five rebounds and recorded three assists with no turnovers.
But the game wasn’t all merry for Tennessee.
The Vols were 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) shooting beyond the 3-point arc, including an 0-for-13 shooting stretch in the second half.
McBee was 3-for-6 shooting from 3-point range, leaving the rest of the team 2 of 20 — a cumulative 0-for-9 performance by wings Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum.
UT committed a season-high 23 turnovers and allowed North Carolina A&T to close the gap with a 14-0 burst that grew into a 21-6 run over the final 6:01.
Melvin Goins got the start at point guard on account of Bobby Maze suffering flu-like symptoms. Goins’ defensive play was impressive enough, but he was 0-for-3 shooting and had two assists and three turnovers.
The Vols’ inability to finish against the tired, overmatched Aggies led to Pearl’s sobering post-game assessment.
“Every team gets it going at different times of the season, and I would hope that absolutely we would have a greater upside,’’ Pearl said. “We need to play a lot better than we’re playing to beat the people on our schedule.’’
The Aggies lost 80-59 at Miami, Fla., fewer than 48 hours before tipoff.
Tennessee’s next game is Dec. 31 at Memphis (8-2).
The Vols next home game is at 7 p.m. on Jan. 6 against Charlotte (9-2). The 49ers handed Rick Pitino his worst home loss at Louisville (87-65) on Dec. 5, but had their seven-game win streak snapped at Old Dominion Wednesday night (81-48).