Belmont's Mick Hedgepeth (34) works the ball against Tennessee's Brian Williams (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Dec. 23,, 2010 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — Building a big lead against Belmont hasn’t been a problem for the Tennessee men’s basketball team. The Volunteers have done it twice this season.
Holding that lead has been another matter.
But losing hasn’t been.
UT lost a second comfortable cushion in two months against the typically tough Bruins, but a Scotty Hopson layup with 5.7 seconds left gave the Vols a 66-65 win Thursday night in Thompson-Boling Arena.
“That was a great basketball game,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “I think our fans would probably prefer the margin to be greater. I don’t know how much stress there is around the holidays, but I know we’ve added to it. But you had two really good teams that played really hard and did a lot of good things. I think both teams deserved to win.
“It’s certainly a win that we needed, but it’s not one that I feel great about, because I’m a big fan of Belmont’s basketball program, of their coach, and I know what that win could have meant for their program.
“They certainly have played us as well as anybody at the mid-major level, and I’ll do everything I can not to schedule them again. But you had to enjoy that. You had to enjoy some of that execution, and obviously a great deal of the drama.”
There was plenty of execution and drama, especially in the final minutes.
UT’s win prevented the program’s first four-game losing streak under Pearl. And Hopson, who had been cold from the field in the three losses, scored 11 of his 19 points in the final six minutes and made eight of nine free throws. The sophomore guard scored the Vols’ final nine points, all on tough drives to the rim or free throws that resulted from them — or both, in one case.
“I got back into that attack mode that I haven’t been in the last few games,” Hopson said. “I got back to being me. I got back to sticking to my strengths, things I haven’t been doing lately. But I did it tonight, and it was successful for me.”
Belmont, which has lost only to UT and Vanderbilt this season and coasted past virtually every other opponent, quickly overcame a 12-point halftime deficit and took just its first lead in more than 35 minutes on a Jon House layup with 49 seconds left.
Hopson put UT back in front on two free throws with 37.5 seconds left, but Belmont regained the lead with 18.1 seconds left on a Mick Hedgepeth layup.
The Vols again went to Hopson, who again went hard to the paint and again put them in ahead — this time for good.
“We knew the Belmont guy guarding Scotty was a big mismatch for us on the wing, and we wanted to take advantage of it,” said UT freshman forward Tobias Harris, who stuffed the stat sheet with 17 points, seven rebounds, five steals, three assists and three blocks. “We knew we could take advantage of that.”
Maybe the players knew. Pearl said he didn’t know.
“For us, some questions get answered, but they’re temporarily answered,” Pearl said. “Obviously, Scotty made great plays down the stretch. We forced the ball to him, and we told him to get to the rim or get fouled, and he did. ... Our great challenge is closing out close games, particularly at the offensive end.
“Who do you go to? I think Scotty answered that question that he is certainly capable. But his turnovers bother me — the fact that he gets stripped. We knew if we could get it to the wings, we could hurt them on the baseline. Scotty did a great job of competing for the rim, and they couldn’t keep him in front, so they fouled him.
“But no, I don’t know exactly what I can count on and what I can’t count on.”
The Vols can count on a couple of days off for Christmas, but Pearl kept them longer than usual in the locker room and said it wasn’t a “happy” postgame situation.
“We’re relieved to get this win, I guess you could say, but we’re not happy,” Harris said. “We know we’re not playing like we should be playing. We could have won some of those other games [we lost], but we could have lost this one because we’re doing a lot of the same stuff.
“Obviously, we’ve still got a long way to go.”
The Vols played most of the second half without junior guard Cameron Tatum, their third leading scorer. He bruised some ribs crashing into the bench for a loose ball late in the first half, and he quickly left the floor again after starting the second half. Freshman Jordan McRae got extended minutes before and especially after Tatum’s injury, and senior Steven Pearl — who has a knee knock and didn’t figure to factor in Thursday’s initial rotation — played all of his eight minutes after Tatum left the game.
Forwards Scott Saunders and Trevor Noack came off Belmont’s deep bench to score 12 and 10 points for the Bruins, who are third nationally in points from nonstarters. Hedgepeth added 11 points for the Bruins, who make nearly 10 3-pointers per game but were just 8-for-35 behind the arc Thursday, including a dismal 3-for-22 in the first half.
Belmont out-rebounded the Vols 47-40.
“Four times we have been up here the last several years, and in all of them we had a chance to win. Tonight was the best one, obviously,” longtime Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “[Hopson] made a good play. I didn’t scheme very well defensively in the last possession ... but I was proud of our team.
“I hope what that says is we can play an SEC team on the road and have a chance to win [despite] shooting the ball horribly.”