KNOXVILLE -- When you've already lost two straight Southeastern Conference games five games into the conference race, you don't mess around with maybes. You go for the closest thing to a sure thing in your arsenal.
So with only 25 seconds to play Sunday afternoon in Tennessee's SEC East contest against Florida, the Vols down one, UT coach Bruce Pearl decided he had but one option to avoid a three-game losing skid.
"I asked (Scotty Hopson) to win it for us," Pearl would say later. "I actually said, 'Win this for us.'"
Never mind that Hopson had won exactly zero games for UT since arriving in the fall of 2008 as Pearl's most decorated recruit ever. Or that seniors Wayne Chism and JP Prince had both outplayed the 6-7 sophomore wing to this point.
Then again, perhaps Pearl had something bigger in mind than one game. Or as Prince noted, "We need the young guys to push us over the edge."
But pushing has never previously been Hopson's strength. Apparently uncomfortable with becoming the lead dog on a team dominated by seniors Chism, Prince and point guard Bobby Maze -- as well as former alpha male Tyler Smith before Pearl was forced to cut him loose last month -- Hopson contented himself with floating on the perimeter of the Vols' offense. He was seemingly happy to hoist long triples when open; unperturbed that the offense almost always ran through someone else.
The Hopkinsville, Ky., native may lead UT in scoring at 13.8 ppg, but it rarely seems that way down the stretch of tight games. Chism, Prince, even walk-on Sklyar McBee always seem to be making the biggest shots when it matter most.
Not that Pearl has necessarily wanted it that way.
"Coach is always putting pressure on me to be more aggressive," said Hopson. "When he came to me in the timeout and asked me to win the game for us, I liked it. It showed he has confidence in me."
That confidence proved to be well-founded against the Gators. The play was for Hopson to set up on the right wing and for Chism to draw at least one Florida defender with him as he ran across the lane.
Or as Hopson said, "Wayne was the decoy."
Afterward, when someone asked Chism what that felt like, he grinned and said, "If you're going to take my shot, you better make my shot."
Hopson did. He took one dribble, figured he had enough distance to launch over 6-9 Chandler Parsons and let it fly, believing he'd just buried a winning 3-pointer.
Said Pearl, "(Florida coach) Billy Donovan knew exactly where I wanted to go with the ball. I thought Hopson would be open, (but) Parsons did a good job of staying with him. What Scotty did from there was all him."
What he did was give the Vols the lead. The only mistake he made was allowing his left toe to touch the 3-point line, which meant the Vols led 61-60 instead of 62-60 with 20 seconds to play.
"I thought it was a 3," said Pearl. "When (UF's) Alex Tyus got the last look, if it goes, I promise you I thought we were going to overtime."
Everyone but the referees thought it was a 3, including Thompson-Boling public address announcer Jeff Jarnigan, who announced as much to the crazed crowd of 21,208. But because it wasn't, Tyus could have won the game on a two-footer three seconds from the horn.
Only he didn't hit it, and Hopson -- who else? -- got the rebound to end it, improving the Vols to 16-4 overall and 4-2 in SEC play.
"I looked up just before Tyus shot it and saw we were up one instead of two," Hopson said. "I didn't think he'd hit it anyway because Wayne was on him. But I'm still glad I got the rebound, just to make sure we won. "
To help make sure the Vols would win more this year than last year, Hopson changed his shot over the summer, lessening the arc as well as the release point.
"I changed the arc a little because when I watched film it looked like my teammates didn't know where it was going when I missed," he explained. "I also started putting it on my fingertips more and releasing it more over my head instead of behind it."
The results have been dramatic, especially from 3-point range, where Hopson has gone from being a 36 percent shooter as a freshman to nearly 48 percent this year, despite going 0-for-2 from over the rainbow against the Gators.
"It was a big shot," said Pearl of the winner. "But Scotty is going to have a lot more big shots."
Added Hopson, suddenly all smiles and confidence, "People have been telling me for years that I need to do this. Now that I've got one, I feel a lot better about doing this in the future."
Now that he's got one, the rest of the SEC should feel much worse about Hopson winning another one for the Vols. And another. And another.
Or as Prince said, "When Scotty realizes how good he is, nobody will be able to stop him."