Pearl was clearly moved by UT's performance on its first road trip of the season, to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Season Tip-Off this week.
The No. 24 Vols (5-0) defeated Virginia Commonwealth 77-72 in the semifinals Wednesday and No. 7 Villanova 78-68 in the championship game on Friday night.
"I had plenty of doubts how good this team could be because of how new it was,'' said Pearl. "This is one of the hardest-working teams I've had.''
Junior Scotty Hopson, who was voted the tournament's most outstanding player, has been one of the Vols' hardest workers throughout his career.
"I've worked a long time for this day to come,'' said Hopson, who was 6-of-11 shooting from the floor and 5-of-8 from the foul line against Villanova. "In the first half I was settling for pull-ups, and that wasn't happening.
"Then in the second half when they started pressing, I was getting the ball in transition, and I saw there was usually only one smaller guard between me and the basket, so I was thinking I could easily go by them.''
On the defensive end, Hopson was matched against Villanova 6-foot-1 guard Corey Fisher, a preseason All-Big East selection who scored 26 points in an 82-70 win over UCLA on Wednesday.
"I thought that Scotty's length bothered Corey,'' Pearl said. "And Scotty stayed down (in his stance defensively), and while Corey was getting some shots, he was having to shoot over (Hopson's) 6-foot-6 frame and he wasn't getting to the rim.''
Fisher was just 1-of-10 shooting against Hopson and had six turnovers and one assist.
On Guard: The entire Villanova backcourt - considered the strength of the team - struggled.
This, despite UT missing two guards. Trae Golden was sidelined by a fever and Josh Bone remains out with a fractured wrist.
Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns were combining to average 46.2 points per game entering Friday's game, but against the Vols they combined for 25 and were a cumulative 7-of-39 shooting.
Mighty Melvin: "I thought the physicality of Goins' defense and the ball pressure he put on Wayns, I thought that was very significant,'' Pearl said.
Waynes, who was averaging six assists, had four against UT but also, five turnovers.
"Goins, they list him at 180 pounds,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But he looked like a defensive back off a football team to me. He is broad-shouldered, strong and gets real low.
"Even McBee did a good job . . . and their bigs (provided) help.''
McBee's Three: McBee was only 1-for-2 shooting against the Wildcats, but this 3-pointer was a big one, capping a 10-3 run that gave the Vols what proved to be an insurmountable 66-58 lead with 3:38 remaining.
"It's always a great feeling to hit a three at a crucial time,'' McBee said. "In this case, it wasn't a hard decision, I was open.''
Big Brian: UT post Brian Williams also handled his business against Villanova's premium big man, 6-10, 250-pound Mouphtaou Yarou.
Williams had 12 points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes, while Yarou had 15 points and five rebounds in 30 minutes.
"Brian has picked it up,'' Pearl said. "I know his teammates are awfully proud of him.''