HARTFORD, Conn. — Tennessee contained Connecticut star Kemba Walker on Saturday afternoon, but the Vols couldn’t overcome their own offensive inconsistencies.
The No.8-ranked Huskies scored a 72-61 men’s basketball victory over Tennessee before a sellout crowd of 16,294 at the XL Center, with Walker scoring a season-low 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting.
UConn improved to 16-2 this season and 7-0 in the downtown Hartford arena, spoiling Bruce Pearl’s return to the UT bench.
“I’ve had four nightmare situations, and I have four more coming up,’’ said Pearl, who has served four games of his eight-game suspension from coaching in SEC games. “It was good to get back, and it was fun to be in the game for a while and have some affect on the game.’’
Melvin Goins starred for the Vols, leading UT (12-7) with 15 points while pulling down six rebounds and dishing out five assists.
Goins also served as the primary defender on Walker, who entered the game second in the nation in scoring averaging 25.5 points per game.
“Walker is a guy who likes to play in space,’’ Goins said. “I tried to crowd him and make him uncomfortable, and I think that bothered him.’’
Goins also annoyed UConn with his offense; his drive at the 9:27 mark of the first half capped a 7-0 UT run and gave the Vols their largest lead of the game at 19-11.
“Coming out I thought we looked like ourselves, like the team that beat Villanova and Pitt,’’ Pearl said. “We carried the momentum of our wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia into the first half.’’
But not through the first half.
The Huskies went on a 7-0 run that started when Walker scored his first point of the game from the foul line at the 5:23 mark.
UConn center Alex Oriakhi, who finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and three steals, capped the run with a tip-in that tied the game at 24-24 with 3:32 left in the half.
Whatever momentum the Vols had remaining vanished at the end of the half when Walker buried a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to give the Huskies a 32-31 halftime edge.
“That was a big shot for them,’’ Goins said, “but we battled back.’’
The Vols, however, never reclaimed the lead.
The Huskies scored the first five points of the second half, and the closest UT could get after that came when Goins hit a jumper with 8:33 left to cut UConn’s lead to 52-51.
The Huskies went on a 7-0 tear from there, capped by another Oriakhi basket inside after Hopson let a rebound slip through his fingers.
It was that kind of day for Hopson, who had five of the Vols’ 12 turnovers while struggling to guard Huskies freshman Jeremy Lamb (16 points, five rebounds).
“We’re inconsistent because our best player, Scotty Hopson, is inconsistent,’’ Pearl said. “It’s not about his effort, his attitude or ability. He’s a great kid, but he’s just had some tough performances.’’
Hopson, 5-of-13 shooting, wasn’t alone in his struggles: Cameron Tatum was 2-of-7 shooting and Trae Golden and Skylar McBee were a combined 0-for-5 from the field in 18 minutes.
Tobias Harris, who was 4-of-10 shooting with five rebounds, was visibly upset after the loss.
“We let this game slip away from us,’’ Harris said. “We’re probably the best 12-7 team in the nation . . . we’ve lost a lot of games we shouldn’t have lost.’’
Pearl let the Vols know he was upset with them in the post-game locker room.
“He just said we got out-rebounded and out-hustled, and those are things we can control,’’ Harris said. “A lot of our turnovers were unforced.’’
Pearl pointed out UConn scored 24 points off UT’s 12 turnovers, while the Vols got 14 off the Huskies’ 12 turnovers.
“That’s 10 points, and then you look at the score,’’ Pearl said. “We could be 3-0 against the Big East if not for some careless turnovers, offensive rebounds and inconsistent play.’’
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said his team had something to do with the Tennessee’s performance.
“Out of the 18 games we’ve played, it was far and away the best team effort against a quality opponent,’’ said Calhoun, whose Huskies also have non-conference wins over Michigan State, Texas and Kentucky. “I don’t think it’s even close.’’
UT played without reserve wings Renaldo Woolridge and Jordan McRae.
Woolridge re-aggravated an ankle injury and didn’t dress, and McRae was suspended indefinitely for what Pearl called a “violation of team conduct.’’
The Vols (2-2 in the SEC) return to action at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena when they play host to LSU (10-9, 2-2).
“I’m confident we’ll stay in the SEC race and be competitive,’’ said Pearl, whose first game back coaching in an SEC game is Feb. 8 at Kentucky.
“I think we can beat anyone in the country, but we’ve been inconsistent. It’s something we can still fix.’’