UT's Scotty Hopson on 66-65 win over Belmont
"Merry Christmas, everybody,'' shouted the figure in a gray sweatsuit as he flashed through the media work room on his way to the holidays.
Indeed, it will be a merrier Christmas for Scotty Hopson after the ending he helped author for Tennessee on the night before the night before Christmas.
Hopson scored the final nine Tennessee points and the Vols needed every last one of them to subdue Belmont 66-65 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
That's good news for UT on a number of fronts.
One is avoiding the first four-game losing streak of the Bruce Pearl era.
Another is that if Hopson doesn't convert the driving layup with 5.7 seconds to play, UT is looking at a hat trick of one-point losses to follow on the heels of Charlotte and Southern Cal.
But it also matters which Vol got to go home in the orange hero's cape.
If you want to make a case that "as Hopson goes, so go the Vols," you could present the past five games as evidence.
Hopson carried UT to victory at Pittsburgh on Dec. 11. Without him going off for 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting there's no way the Vols get the attention-grabbing, RPI-boosting win.
Alas, in UT's crash-back-to-earth losing streak Hopson was mired in a horrid shooting slump and turnover frenzy.
He put that to bed by taking over the final four minutes Thursday night. If he wasn't slashing through Belmont's defense for the basket, he was getting fouled and hitting the free throws.
"That's good for him and good for their team,'' said Belmont coach Rick Byrd.
"He's hard for us to guard and he's hard for a lot of people to guard.
"I'm sure Bruce just wants him to be more aggressive offensively. Sometimes he disappears for them, I think, and I'm sure this is a big step for them.''
Hopson got his 19 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field and 8-of-9 at the free-throw stripe.
With 3:50 to play and Belmont hanging within three points, Hopson slashed for a dunk, was fouled and finished the three-point play for a 60-54 lead.
Next trip, he drew the foul and hit the freebies. His subsequent drive ended in his fourth turnover, but he didn't back off.
After Belmont took a 63-62 lead, Hopson went on the move, drew the foul and converted both tries to restore Tennessee to a 64-63 lead with 37.5 seconds left.
Belmont got a go-ahead bucket with 18 seconds on the clock and it looked like dej<0x00E0> vu all over again.
However, unlike the past two games, Pearl had a plan that produced a high-percentage look at the basket.
His plan? Hopson, one more time.
"We forced the ball to him and told him to get to the rim or get fouled, and he did,'' Pearl said.
Said Hopson, "It was really the same play, either side, every time.
"For me to get the ball in 'iso' and whatever way I drive, the big men are clearing out the paint for me and I was able to score some buckets.''
A word about the big men. Pearl has been saying for a couple of weeks that it takes all five guys in sync to make an offensive play come to fruition.
This wasn't just a case of saying, "Here's the ball, Scotty, go score and everybody get out of the way." On the game-winning basket, center Brian Williams sealed off the help-side defense to assure Hopson a clear path.
"We were properly spaced,'' said Pearl, "and Brian manhandled the post. There was no help.''
Instead, there is hope.
The Vols still have a ton of work to do before they launch into SEC play in January.
At least Hopson, the guy the Vols have to get points from every time out, heads home to Hopkinsville, Ky., feeling better about himself.
He knows when his team needed him he rose out of a slump and delivered.
That's fine, but it's also temporary. Another week will bring another game when the Vols need him to deliver again.
With that in mind, Pearl was cautious in validating exactly how big of a step Hopson took in those final four minutes.
"That depends,'' said Pearl, "on what he does when he comes back.''