He wouldn’t get any arguments from Mississippi State.
The 16th-ranked Vols raced out to a 17-0 lead and were never seriously threatened en route to a 75-59 victory over the Bulldogs in Humphrey Coliseum on Saturday night.
“That was the best basketball we’ve played,’’ Pearl said. “We obviously took this one real seriously.’’
Tennessee (23-7, 11-5 SEC) capped the regular season by winning five of its past six games, severely damaging the NCAA tournament hopes of SEC West Division champ Mississippi State (21-10, 9-7) in the process.
Vols junior post Brian Williams scored 10 points and pulled down a season-high 13 rebounds to record the third double-double of his career.
UT out-rebounded the Bulldogs 46-30 and outscored them 48-20 in the paint despite Wayne Chism being held to a season-low one point.
“The biggest thing, we had 33 defensive rebounds, they had 10 offensive rebounds,’’ Pearl said. “We dominated inside and that was the key.’’
Jarvis Varnado, the NCAA’s all-time shot blocks leader, swatted two and scored 11 points with three turnovers.
Senior J.P. Prince led the Vols with 16 points, Scotty Hopson had 14, and Williams, Bobby Maze and Cameron Tatum had 10 apiece.
Tennessee set the tone early, hitting eight of its first 10 shots to open the game, while the Bulldogs were 0-for-5 shooting from the floor with four turnovers through the first 5½ minutes..
“If you’re going to win on the road, you have to play well early,’’ said Pearl, who’s 3-0 in Starkville. “Obviously, we did. We play-called early and came out aggressively.
“They missed a couple of shots, and we got some baskets in transition.’’
Hopson, who was booed loudly each time he touched the ball in the first half, scored six of his points during the opening 17-0 burst, including a layup at the 14:22 mark to cap the run.
“I hadn’t ever really been booed like that before,’’ said Hopson, who made a verbal commitment to sign with Mississippi State before changing course for Knoxville. “It kind of got me fired up; I wanted to go right back at them.’’
The Bulldogs, led by Kodi Augustus’ 15 points, rallied back to within 11 points of the Vols on eight occasions before finally getting to within single digits.
Romero Osby’s drive to the basket pulled Mississippi State to 53-44 with 10:10 left in the game.
Tennessee answered with an 8-0 run, and the Bulldogs failed to get closer than 11 points for the remainder of the game.
Pearl said Vols’ fans might now better understand why he was upset following UT’s 80-73 victory over Arkansas on Wednesday.
“I wanted to see that (execution) against Arkansas at home,’’ Pearl said. “That’s stepped up and focused; you can win in March playing like that.’’
The Vols return to action at 3:15 p.m. Thursday against LSU (11-19, 2-14) in the first round of the SEC tournament in Nashville. With a win, UT advances to play Ole Miss, which earned a first-round bye by finishing second in the SEC West with a 9-7 league record (21-9 overall).
Tyler in Turkey: Former Vol Tyler Smith debuted for Bornova Belediye in the Turkish Basketball League with 17 points, two rebounds and three assists in a 104-79 loss to Turk Telekom on Friday.
Smith was 7-of-10 shooting, including 2-of-5 from 3-point range and split a pair of free throws.