published Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Wiedmer: Pearls find magic in Memorial

NASHVILLE -- An ugly basketball game stumbling and bumbling to an uncertain conclusion Tuesday night, Tennessee reserve forward Steven Pearl found himself whistled for a foul against Vanderbilt's John Jenkins.

In Pearl's mind it was a tough enough break that official Mike Kitts had wrongly called a foul. But he also knew that Jenkins -- a 90 percent free-throw shooter -- was the ultimate wrong guy to foul.

So Pearl jumped up and down in moral outrage. He actually spun around 360 degrees, briefly clutching the basketball beneath his arm. His father, Bruce, the UT coach, was only slightly less incensed.

But Pearl the father also knew that a technical foul on Pearl the son could also be disastrous with the Volunteers trailing by two with a little more than six minutes to play against the No. 18 Commodores.

So Pops told his son to pat Kitts on the back when play resumed and tell the referee that he was sorry he overreacted.

"Mike's a good official," Steven Pearl would say later. "And he knows how emotional I can get. Fortunately, he let it go."

Then the most amazing thing happened -- especially since this was Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym, a quirky structure long known for producing Memorial Magic for the Commodores.

Yet not on this night. Not at this moment. Having struggled to find his range all evening from the field, Jenkins stunningly clanged his free throw to the left. Pearl grabbed the rebound. In the remaining six minutes, UT would outscore the home team 14-3, eventually winning 60-51, a victory to move the Vols to 17-11 overall and 7-6 in the Southeastern Conference.

Said Pearl later of that untimely Jenkins miss: "Since I didn't think I fouled him, maybe it was a little karma."

It appeared to be all bad karma for the Vols before this one began. News began trickling out late Tuesday afternoon that the NCAA's notification of infractions could be delivered to the Big Orange brass as early as today.

Bruce Pearl and former UT football coach Lane Kiffin both supposedly will be cited in the letter for NCAA violations, and the school reportedly will have until June to mount a defense.

If UT's lawyers defend as well as the Vols did against the Commodores, the Big Orange just might get off without so much as a wrist slap.

"Our niche has to be defense and rebounding," Coach Pearl said. "When we do that, we can be a pretty good team."

You want defense and rebounding? The Velcro Vols held Vanderbilt to 38.6 percent shooting from the floor and 18.8 percent from the 3-point line while nabbing 15 huge steals. They also outrebounded the 'Dores 37-31,13-3 on the offensive backboards.

"Definitely a great defensive game for us," said Tobias Harris, whose 10 points and 11 rebounds nicely supported Scotty Hopson's game-high 19 points and Melvin Goins' 15 points and three steals. "We just didn't want to lose."

No one appeared to want to lose less than young Pearl, who may have played the best game of his UT career in the final month of his career. He finished with six points, five rebounds and three steals in 13 minutes.

"It kind of all started with that circus shot," said Pearl, who shot one in from his hip in the opening half. "Coach said it was a bad shot, but it went in. Everything just got easier from there."

It has been anything but an easy season for the Vols. The letter from the NCAA is sure to add to the tension.

But for one night inside the most unlikely of places to find relief, both the Pearls could smile in victory.

"We finally gave our fans something to cheer about," Bruce Pearl said. "We've put them through a lot this year both on and off the court."

Depending on the NCAA charges against him, some might call that karma.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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