PITTSBURGH - Tennessee came into the Steel City in attack mode, anxious to prove its worth against the Big East's best Saturday afternoon.
Led by a career-high 27 points from junior Scotty Hopson, the 11th-ranked Vols scored a convincing 83-76 men's basketball victory over No. 3 Pitt before a partisan crowd of 15,166 at the Consol Energy Center as part of the SEC-Big East Invitational.
"I knew what we were up against, said Hopson, who scored 16 of his points in the first half as UT cruised to a 37-25 lead by halftime. "I knew I had to make plays and stay in attack mode for us to win.''
The Vols entered the game as 8-point underdogs but led by as many as 21 in the second half. At 7-0, UT is off to its best start in Bruce Pearl's six-year tenure at UT.
Pittsburgh (10-1) led only once, when Brad Wanamaker scored the first basket of the game for two of his team-high 21 points.
A Hopson 3-pointer gave UT a 28-17 lead at the nine-minute mark of the first half and triggered a 7-2 run. The Panthers didn't get closer than eight until there were 11 seconds left in the game.
"They got us in a hole and we just didn't recover,'' said Panthers coach Jamie Dixon, whose teams had won 57 consecutive non-conference games in the city of Pittsburgh dating back to a 69-66 loss to Bucknell on Jan. 2, 2005. "They just beat us at our game.''
UT senior Melvin Goins made sure of it, scoring 11 of his career-high 19 points in the final two minutes, most of them coming from the foul line.
The Vols collectively connected on 12 of 14 free throws in the final two minutes to stave off Pitt's final, furious rally.
Cameron Tatum, who scored 14 points, had a pair of free throws down the stretch after finishing 4-for-6 shooting from the floor.
"We knew they play tough, and they play physical,'' Tatum said. "We had to match their level of intensity and toughness.''
The Vols got Pitt's attention early, as the Panthers hadn't trailed by more than eight points this season prior to Saturday.
"Tennessee had a good first punch and we just didn't respond,'' Wanamaker said. "They brought it to us and they just kept coming.''
Hopson was relentless, most notably with 14 1/2 minutes remaining after Pitt cut the lead to single digits and forced Pearl to call a timeout.
The Consol Energy Center was rocking with gold-clad Pitt fans sensing a comeback before Hopson drove the lane and banked in a shot high off the glass.
A Trae Golden steal on Pitt's ensuing possession led to Hopson pulling up in the lane, drawing contact, and adjusting his shot in mid-air.
"Scotty made play after play,'' Goins said. "We all know he can score, but when he made that 'and-1,' when he drew the foul and adjusted his shot, I knew this was going to be remembered as a great game for him.''
Pearl, who picked up his 450th career coaching victory and ran his record to 7-7 against top-5 teams, said Hopson is evolving.
"It was a big game on the road, on a big stage, and Scotty made some tough baskets,'' Pearl said. "You can see his development.
"Our seniors know they need Scotty, and Scotty knows he needs to score for us to win.''
While Hopson's 10-for-13 shooting performance was sure to make the highlight reels, the importance of Tennessee's defense and rebounding can't be overlooked.
The Panthers entered the game with the top rebounding margin in the nation, but the Vols out-rebounded them 34-32 despite UT's three tallest players - Brian Williams, John Fields and Kenny Hall - fouling out.
Pearl had hoped Saturday would be the debut of 6-foot-7, 258-pound sophomore transfer Jeronne Maymon, but the UT office of the provost decided to withhold his eligibility until grades are made final.
"I didn't even think about it once the game started,'' said Pearl. "This was a big road win, and it helps us in every way.
"But now we've got Oakland, and they lost to No. 7 Michigan State by one point (77-76) today.''
The Vols play the Golden Grizzlies (5-5) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Thompson-Boling Arena.