ATHENS, Ga. — Tennessee saw Georgia coming, like a big red freight train headed downhill into Saturday’s contest.
“We didn’t get beat because we came in overconfident or because we didn’t respect our opponent,’’ said UT coach Bruce Pearl . “We got beat by a better team today, it was clear.’’
Georgia threw down nine dunks, was 7-of-12 shooting beyond the 3-point arc and out-rebounded UT 35-24 in scoring a convincing 78-63 victory over the No. 8-ranked Vols.
UT (15-3, 3-1 SEC) had won seven straight games and had not been beaten since Dec. 19 at Southern California.
The Bulldogs (9-8, 1-3) snapped a 10-game losing streak to UT that dated back to February 2004 and beat Pearl for the first time after eight losses.
The Vols jumped out to a 4-2 lead, but Georgia ended the hopes of the 1,500 or so UT fans who traveled to the game quickly, responding with a 12-0 run that included one of the most spectacular dunks of the season.
Travis Leslie, a 6-foot-4 sophomore wing, took flight on a breakaway, executing a two-handed windmill dunk that he stuffed home on the reverse side of the rim.
Leslie’s slam brought the crowd of 10,523 to its feet; it was Georgia’s first sellout in Stegeman Coliseum dating back to a loss to No. 1 Florida in February of 2007.
The Bulldogs rewarded their spirited followers with domination Saturday, leading by double-digits from the 9:59 mark of the first half onward.
When it wasn’t Leslie (19 points, nine rebounds), it was 6-10, 247-pound Trey Thompkins (21 points, eight rebounds) doing the majority of damage.
“We tried to extend our defense a bit, because we felt we needed to turn them over,’’ Pearl said. “We were so concerned with their post offense, then when the game got helter skelter, it opened the floor up for (Leslie).’’
The Vols, led by Scotty Hopson’s 19 points, trailed 42-27 at the half and didn’t get closer than 12 for the remainder of the game.
Pearl said UT’s offensive problems were aplenty; from Georgia’s considerable size advantage, to the Vols’ inability to get the ball inside against the Bulldogs’ unorthodox 3-2 zone.
“One of the things that makes it (3-2 zone) effective is nobody plays it,’’ Pearl said. “So we had to spend all week getting ready for something we hadn’t seen all year.’’
UT senior post Wayne Chism was ineffective even before he went down with a hyper-extended left knee with 9:22 left in the first half.
“It was sore,’’ Pearl said, “so physically he just wasn’t the same after that.’’
Chism returned after a brief trip to the locker room and played 27 minutes, scoring six points on 3-of-10 shooting while pulling down six rebounds and blocking three shots.
“First and foremost, we got smashed and beat horribly on rebounds,’’ said UT freshman post Kenny Hall, who scored 10 points but grabbed only three rebounds in his first start. “I don’t remember seeing that many bigs on the floor at a time against anyone else we’ve played.
“And I just felt they wanted it more, and played harder than us.’’
Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins saw their first action since being reinstated last Sunday, playing nine and four minutes, respectively.
But Brian Williams, the 6-10, 278-pound junior, was the player the Vols missed most in this matchup. Williams remains indefinitely suspended for his role in the well-documented Jan. 1 traffic stop that resulted in the dismissal of forward Tyler Smith.
“We missed Brian a lot today because of his size and physicality,’’ Pearl said. “So you’ve got Renaldo Woolridge (6-8, 208) playing some center and a 6-5 walk-on power forward (Steven Pearl) out there.’’
Pearl said the Vols are also missing too many from the perimeter, with the exception of Hopson, who hit 3 of 6 beyond the 3-point arc.
“Scotty stepped up and showed what he’s capable of, but he needs to do it more in the beginning,’’ Pearl said. “Playing against a 3-2 zone, you’re going to have to make some shots from three, and for the second straight game Scotty was the only one to make a 3-ball.’’
Hopson took no consolation in his offense or defense, which included a career-high five steals.
“We battled back a little bit,’’ Hopson said. “But there were just too many mistakes in this game.
“It’s just good knowing we’re coming back home to play in front of our fans this week.’’
The Vols play host to Vanderbilt (15-3, 4-0) at 7 p.m. Wednesday before Florida (14-5, 3-2) comes to Thompson-Boling Arena at 1 p.m. next Sunday.