But the Vols weren’t close to getting a victory.
Kentucky rolled over Tennessee, 73-61, in a men’s basketball game that never seemed that close at Rupp Arena.
“It was good to be back, but I wish I could have helped my team more,’’ Pearl said. “I didn’t help them enough to stay within range.’’
The 18th-ranked Wildcats (17-6, 5-4 SEC) led by as many as 19 points in the first half over the Vols (15-9, 5-4) and were up by double digits throughout most all of the second half.
Melvin Goins led UT with 16 points, Josh Bone had 13 points, Tobias Harris had 10 and Hopson scored 11, five under his average, in his first game back since spraining his left ankle in a Feb. 1 practice.
Hopson, who missed the last two games, started and played 24 minutes, finishing 3-of-8 shooting with two assists and two turnovers.
“I thought Scotty Hopson showed you something; he really battled to get back,’’ said Pearl, who was coaching his first SEC game of the season after an eight-game league suspension for lying to the NCAA. “He answered some toughness questions. He’s not 100 percent, but I thought he attacked the rim.’’
The Wildcats did, too, taking their largest lead when 6-foot-10 senior Josh Harrellson tipped in a Jon Hood miss to make it 33-14 at the 5:51 mark of the first half and cap a 17-2 run.
Tennessee battled back, closing out the first half with a 14-2 spurt to draw to 35-28.
When Goins hit a jumper to start the second half, the Vols were within five, and the crowd of 24,334 quieted a bit.
But it wasn’t long before Kentucky had the Big Blue fans raising the roof again, as it answered UT’s opening salvo with a 13-0 run of its own. It was 48-30, Wildcats, on a Harrellson put-back basket at the 15:57 mark.
The Vols couldn’t get closer than 10 points after that.
The 13-0 Kentucky run began with consecutive rebounds after missed free throws, which Pearl said was pivotal.
“They kept giving us chances to get back into it,’’ Pearl said. “But then they were playing volleyball (after the missed free throws), and that set the tone.
“I thought toughness and rebounding were two areas they needed to win, and they did.’’
Bone, whose 13 points represented his UT career high, said it was a team loss.
“We didn’t play hard enough, and we didn’t play tough as a team,’’ Bone said. “They punked us.’’
Brian Williams, who had eight points and nine rebounds, said the team was excited to have Pearl back in the huddle.
“Coach is one of the greatest motivators I’ve ever been around,’’ Williams said. “This game is on the players.
“It takes special to win in here, and we didn’t have it.’’
DeAndre Liggins led Kentucky with 19 points, Harrellson had 16 points, Brandon Knight had 12 and Terrance Jones scored 10.
Jones was a force on the boards with 11 rebounds, as the Wildcats out-rebounded UT 38-28.
Kentucky also held a commanding advantage at the foul line. The Wildcats knocked down 22 of 27 free throws while the Vols were 8-of-12 shooting from the foul line.
It was the Wildcats’ 30th consecutive win at home, the second-longest streak of its kind in the nation (Duke 32).
Kentucky’s win was also its fifth straight in Rupp Arena over Tennessee, which hasn’t won in Lexington since 2006 when former UT All-American Chris Lofton scored 31 points in a 75-67 victory.
Tennessee returns to action at 6 p.m. Saturday at No.17 Florida (TV:ESPN).
The Gators (18-5, 7-2) lead the SEC Eastern Division and play at South Carolina (13-8, 4-4) today.
Hopson, whose start was a game-time decision on Tuesday, said his ankle was sore leaving Rupp Arena.
“I just tried not to worry about it tonight,’’ Hopson said. “I tried to put it out of my mind.’’
Woolridge Not On Trip: UT junior Renaldo Woolridge did not travel with the team due to an injured ankle. Woolridge, who hasn’t played since the Vols’ Jan. 5 win over Memphis, did not take part in Monday’s drills, either.