KNOXVILLE — Tennessee staged another major meltdown in the final seconds of Saturday’s game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Mississippi State’s Wendell Lewis dunked home the game-winning points with 3.4 seconds left, lifting the Bulldogs to a 70-69 victory over the Vols before a crowd of 20,777.
Tennessee (17-12, 7-7 SEC) had a last-gasp shot opportunity, but Scotty Hopson’s heave from near midcourt failed to draw rim at the buzzer.
The Vols drop to 2-7 in games decided on the final possession of regulation.
Hopson led all scorers with 22 points and pulled down seven rebounds, while Tobias Harris had 16 points and eight rebounds. Ravern Johnson led the Bulldogs (15-13, 7-7) with 20 points and forward Kodi Augustus scored 15 points.
“We are not getting good leadership within the team,’’ Pearl said. “We have some competitors, but we have no leaders.
“Defensively, we played pretty well . . . we held them to 40 percent (39.7 shooting), out-rebounded them (48-40), we didn’t turn them over enough (seven), and I didn’t think our energy or our passion was what it needed to be,” he said. “The team does not play well together offensively.
“We haven’t all year, it’s been a struggle . . . I don’t see that effort on the offensive end; we slop through things.’’
Harris put UT ahead 69-68 with 11 seconds remaining when he dunked off an inbounds pass.
The Bulldogs, out of timeouts, rushed down the floor, putting the ball in the hands of point guard Dee Bost (14 points, 10 assists).
Bost spun in the lane and, as he was stumbling forward, he delivered the key pass to an open Lewis.
Lewis, who matched his season-high with 24 minutes after starter Renardo Sidney fell ill at halftime, went up strong and dunked despite getting fouled by Brian Williams.
Lewis missed the free throw, Hopson rebounded and raced up the floor before launching the shot.
But that wasn’t the miss Hopson will remember: with 13 seconds left, he went to the line with the Vols down 68-66 and hit the first free throw before missing the second.
The ball was tipped out of bounds and ruled off a Mississippi State player, leading to Harris’ go-ahead dunk.
The bloody details of the loss included a 13-0 Bulldogs run in the first half after the Vols had forged ahead by eight, and a 7½-minute stretch of the second half in which UT was a collective 1-of-12 shooting as Mississippi State went up 56-49 with 7:51 remaining.
Vols senior point guard Melvin Goins, who had nine points and five assists, was visibly bothered when asked about Pearl’s comment about the team lacking leadership.
“I don’t agree with that — well, I do agree — from the top all the way down, you know,’’ Goins said. “So if that’s what (Pearl) says, that’s what it is, a lack of leadership.
“I’m talking about whoever is in a leadership position . . . since the beginning of the year, it’s been a struggle within our team,’’ Goins said. “Going through the situations we’ve faced is a tough thing to do.’’
UT has been hounded throughout the season by an NCAA investigation, and Pearl was suspended from coaching the first eight games of the SEC season.
Hopson took Pearl’s comments about the lack of leadership personally.
“Maybe (Pearl’s) coming at me; whenever he challenges me, I always step back up,’’ Hopson said. “I think he wants me to do more on the basketball floor.’’
Hopson described Pearl as “upset, very, very upset” in the post-game locker room, and said Pearl challenged the team as individuals.
“But we’re going to bounce back,’’ Hopson said. “I’ll make sure of that, Mel (Goins) will make sure of that.
“This team is destined for greatness.’’
Tennessee returns to action at 7 p.m. Thursday at South Carolina (14-13, 5-9).