Coach Bruce Pearl said it wasn’t his intention for the Tennessee basketball team to add to the holiday stress for fans.
“But you had to enjoy some of that execution, and obviously a great deal of drama,’’ Pearl said. “For us, some questions get answered, but they are temporary.’’
The 19th-ranked Vols defeated Belmont 66-65 on Scotty Hopson’s soaring lay-in with 5.7 seconds remaining Thursday night before a crowd of 17,594 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Bruins (9-3) got off a final shot attempt, but Kerron Johnson’s leaner from the 3-point line clanked off the rim at the buzzer.
UT (8-3) was trying to avoid losing four games in a row for what would have been the first time in Pearl’s six-year tenure.
The Vols’ previous two losses — at Charlotte last Friday and against Southern Cal Tuesday — were both by one point after UT missed potential game-winning shots at the buzzer.
This time, Pearl dialed up Hopson’s number in the clutch, and the junior preseason All-SEC pick delivered.
Belmont’s Mick Hedgepeth scored a bucket inside with 18.1 seconds remaining to give the Bruins a 65-64 lead and complete the rally from a 35-23 half-time deficit.
Belmont coach Rick Byrd called timeout after the basket to set up his defense.
Pearl, meanwhile, was designing a play where UT center Brian Williams would seal the “help” defender while Hopson drove to the rim with hopes of making the basket or drawing a foul.
Hopson, who led the Vols with 19 points, said hearing his number called was a shot of confidence.
“It meant a lot that coach Pearl and my teammates believed in me and counted on me to come through in that situation,’’ said Hopson, who scored 11 of his points in the final 5½ minutes. “This means a lot to take a step forward, but we still have a lot of kinks to work out.’’
Closing out games, no doubt, will be one of the things Pearl has his team focus on when they return from Christmas Break.
Hopson’s game-winner was the Vols’ first field goal since Hopson drove and dunked on a three-point play with 3:50 remaining to give UT a 60-54 lead.
But Belmont — which fell to the Vols on Nov. 16 by an 85-76 count after pulling within one in the final minute — answered Hopson’s dunk with a 9-2 run capped by Hedgepeth’s basket.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,and obviously this hasn’t been a very good stretch for us,’’ Pearl said. “But a less talented team, and a team with less character and toughness, doesn’t win this game tonight.’’
UT’s issues at the wing were compounded when starter Cameron Tatum injured his ribs at the 4:30 mark after crashing over the Vols’ bench chasing a loose ball.
With Tatum out, freshman Jordan McRae played a season-high 19 minutes and Steven Pearl was forced into eight minutes on the wing.
“It felt like I was playing my first game all over again,’’ said McRae, who hadn’t played in four games and was 1-of-7 shooting but had three blocked shots and four rebounds. “I was shooting the ball too hard.’’
Pearl was efficient in his minutes, making both shots he attempted and igniting his teammates and the crowd with his defensive intensity.
“Steven Pearl is not a three man, got a news flash, his best position is the four,’’ Bruce Pearl said. “But tonight he had to play the three, and without him we don’t win.’’
Belmont out-rebounded UT 47-40, but the Bruins were only 8-of-35 shooting beyond the arc.
Hopson and Harris combined to shoot 16-of-19 from the foul line, but the rest of the team was a combined 6-of-18 shooting free throws.
Hopson and freshman Tobias Harris combined to shoot 16-of-19 from the foul line, but the rest of the team was a combined 6-of-18 shooting free throws. Harris finished with 17 points.
“I played one of my worst games,’’ said Goins, who still managed five assists and one turnover with three steals. “Maybe it was meant for me to be out of the game and have some of the other guys step up.’’
Pearl said he’ll be looking for more step up from his team when they return to practice on Monday.
“That was not a happy locker room,’’ Pearl said. “I want them coming back right and ready.
“Get ready to come back and make a decision: Do you want to act like a team that was picked to finish fourth in the SEC East? Because teams that get picked to finish fourth in the SEC East don’t make the NCAA tournament.’’
The Vols return to action at 7 p.m. Wednesday against UT Martin at Thompson-Boling Arena.