The year 2010 didn’t end much better than it started for the Tennessee men’s basketball team.
Last season’s Vols were able to rally from a well-documented New Year’s Day traffic stop involving four players and make the program’s first trip to the NCAA Elite Eight in school history.
The future of this season’s team remains in flux after the College of Charleston’s convincing 91-78 victory over UT on Friday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Adding to the insult of the loss, Vols coach Bruce Pearl was ejected from the game with 5:25 remaining after being assessed his second technical foul.
It’s the third time Pearl has been ejected in his career and the first since Feb. 5, 2004, while he was coaching at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Friday’s game was all but decided when Pearl was sent to the locker room. The hot-shooting Cougars (9-4) held a 77-63 lead over The Vols (9-4) when official Brian Shey tossed Pearl moments after Lee Cassell assessed the first technical.
“I was asking (Cassell) about the consistency,’’ said Pearl, who felt the game was called differently from one end of the court to the other, as UT was charged with 24 fouls to Charleston’s 17. “I wasn’t talking to the official when I got ejected, that’s what I got surprised about.’’
The 17,794 in attendance got a surprise, too, watching Charleston make its first five 3-point attempts en route to a 35-15 lead at the nine-minute mark of the first half.
The Cougars, however, weren’t about to let opportunity slip away as they had in single-digit losses to Atlantic Coast Conference schools North Carolina (74-69), Maryland (75-74) and Clemson (66-59).
Guards Andrew Goudelock and Donavan Monroe were on target throughout the game, scoring 31 and 27 points, respectively.
The combo combined to hit 10-of-14 shots beyond the 3-point line and the team was a collective 28-of-49 (.571) shooting from the field and 14-of-25 (.560) from three.
“The way we played today, I think we could have beaten anyone in the country,’’ Charleston coach Bobby Cremins said. “We made shots, (and) sometimes there’s nothing you can do. We made some incredible shots.’’
Pearl, in an effort to spark the struggling Vols, used his third different starting lineup in as many games, replacing incumbent post Brian Williams with Kenny Hall.
The move appeared to motivate Williams, who pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds in 23 minutes.
“Our energy level hasn’t been good since we’ve come back (from the holiday break),’’ Pearl said. “We’ve had one practice and two games in this five-day stretch, and I don’t think we’ve had great energy or really good focus in any of them.’’
UT’s woes on Friday were on the perimeter. The Vols’ backcourt proved woefully inadequate defending the dangerous Cougars guards.
“They are great 3-point shooters, so you’ve got to press out and guard them,’’ Pearl said. “It’s ungodly how far you have to come out on them, and then they’re quick enough to turn corners.
“The areas where they set the ball screens, out front, are the areas we are having our greatest challenges.’’
Pearl used starter Melvin Goins and Trae Golden on the point, but with Skylar McBee still suffering the after-effects of a flu, Josh Bone saw 15 minutes of action at the two-guard.
“We couldn’t keep up with the guards,’’ said Bone, a defensive specialist who rescued the Vols in last season’s NCAA tournament. “It’s going to take focus, practice and determination not to give in.’’
The Vols, despite their struggles shooting the ball (30-of-80, .375), didn’t exactly roll over for Charleston.
After the Cougars hit five of their first six shots to open the second half, UT put together a 6-2 run capped by a Goins (six points, one assist, three turnovers) basket to cut the lead to single digits at 61-53 with 14:22 remaining.
Charleston bounced back with a 10-0 run, elevating the lead to 18 points with 10:47 left.
The Vols didn’t cut the deficit back to single digits until Bone hit a 3-pointer with 1:27 remaining to make it 87-78.
“We’re just going to have to look at this game, learn from it, and move on,’’ Hopson said. “It’s a new year, and hopefully we’ll go into it with a different mindset.’’
UT returns to action at 9 p.m. on Jan. 5 against No. 21 Memphis (10-2). The Tigers host Tennessee State today.
Pearl Ejections: Pearl’s most recent ejection came in the first half of a loss to Illinois-Chicago in 2004, when he was the coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Pearl’s other ejection was when he was head coach at Division II Southern Indiana.
When first asked about the ejection, Pearl jokingly replied, “I was just trying to get (assistant coach) Tony Jones some reps.’’
Pearl’s reference was to the pending eight-game league suspension handed down by SEC commissioner Mike Slive in November. Pearl will coach against Memphis, but Jones will take over game-day duties for UT’s first eight conference games beginning with the Vols’ Jan. 8 game at Arkansas and ending with the Feb. 5 home game against Alabama.
Local Flavor: Greeneville’s Antwain Wiggins was destructive on the wing for Charleston, scoring 15 points while pulling down seven rebounds for the Cougars.