Bruce Pearl warned his team that a big red freight train was coming down the tracks and into Knoxville.
Tennessee either didn’t believe its men’s basketball coach or simply was powerless to stop Georgia out of the gates.
The Bulldogs scored a 69-63 win after leading by as many as 15 points in the first half and withstanding the Vols’ second-half rally Saturday afternoon.
“You can’t spot a good team that kind of a lead in a game of this magnitude,’’ Pearl said. “We didn’t show up until (after) the first 10 minutes of the game.
“I have a problem with . . . not realizing you’re in a fight until you’ve already got the crap kicked out of you.’’
The loss moves Tennessee (16-11, 6-6 SEC) one spot closer to the NCAA tournament’s proverbial “bubble,” while Georgia (18-8, 7-5) took another step toward earning an at-large bid.
The loss overshadowed a career-high 32 points from junior Scotty Hopson.
“I’d trade those 32 points for a win, any day of the week,’’ said Hopson, who after starting 0-for-5 shooting hit 10 shots in a row en route to a 12-of-19 performance. “It’s devastating. This is one that slipped away, and it was a lack of focus.
“I looked up at the scoreboard, and it was 22-7, and I was like, ‘We got to go.’ ’’
So Hopson went, slicing through a mob of black jerseys to the rim for a three-point play at the 9:03 mark that ended a 71⁄2-minute scoring drought and a 17-0 Georgia run.
The Vols, who also got 18 points and eight rebounds from freshman Tobias Harris, had cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 33-25 by halftime.
Tennessee opened the second half by hitting nine of its first 12 shots, finding itself with a 45-43 lead on a Melvin Goins’ dunk that got the crowd of 20,462 squarely behind the team.
It was business as usual against Georgia in Knoxville, as the Bulldogs had not won in Thompson-Boling Arena since 2001 prior to Saturday.
But these Bulldogs are proving to be a different breed than their predecessors, and they had plenty of bite left in them having already assured themselves of their first winning road record since 2002.
Jeremy Price, Georgia’s 6-foot-8, 270-pound center, was at the teeth of the attack, scoring a team-high 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the floor and 4-of-4 from the foul line.
Price, who played only nine minutes in UT’s last-second 59-57 win in Athens on Jan. 18, was a difficult matchup throughout the 29 minutes he played Saturday.
“We were supposed to be on top of him,’’ Pearl said, referring to the Vols’ inability to front the post. “Tobias, Brian (Williams), John (Fields), Kenny (Hall) and (Steven) Pearl didn’t do a good enough job getting on top.
Georgia reclaimed the lead on a pair of Price free throws at the 7:32 mark that made it 49-48.
The Bulldogs’ lead was up to 63-57 with a minute left when fans started heading to the exits, unaware the Vols had a rally left in reserve.
On two occasions — following a Hopson dunk and a Harris bucket inside — UT cut Georgia’s lead to two points in the final 40 seconds.
But a defensive stop proved elusive, and Dustin Ware hit four straight free throws down the stretch to keep the Vols more than one possession behind.
Price got loose for a break-away dunk with 12.6 seconds left to slam down the final points.
Tennessee returns to action at 9 p.m. Tuesday at Vanderbilt. The Commodores are 14-1 at home this season, and the Vols have lost three of their past four in Memorial Gym.
“I told the team (after Saturday’s game), ‘If you’ve got more, it’s time,’ ’’ Pearl said. “If this is it, we’re gonna have a hard time beating teams on our schedule.
“Vandy is better than Georgia, tougher than Georgia and more physical than Georgia . . . and just as angry as Georgia was about losing a game to us.’’
A game that started with one warning ended with another.