KNOXVILLE -- Bruce Pearl stood in the media room next to the University of Tennessee's basketball court Saturday afternoon and said something that would have seemed laughable a few years ago.
"There's not necessarily a better environment in college basketball than Thompson-Boling Arena," Pearl said. "It's as good as any. How about that? It's as good as any."
In the past two months, the top two ranked teams in the nation have come to Thompson-Boling and left with losses. Saturday was second-ranked Kentucky's turn.
The 19th-ranked Volunteers withstood a furious rally by the supremely talented Wildcats and scored the final nine points for a 74-65 Southeastern Conference victory.
Kentucky erased a 19-point lead in less than 12 minutes, tying the score on a DeMarcus Cousins slam with 2:10 left. But the Wildcats (27-2, 12-2) didn't score again, thanks to a series of turnovers and bad shots forced by the scrappy Vols (21-7, 9-5).
"They're a good team -- a great team, really -- but they're not unbeatable, especially in our house," said UT senior wing J.P. Prince, who scored six of his game-high 20 points in the final 94 seconds. "We've been through a lot this year, but we're still standing, and we can still beat anybody. And we just showed that."
Prince scored inside to break a tied score, and he made four or four free throws in the final 24 seconds to seal the win.
Sophomore guard Scotty Hopson -- a former high school All-American from Kentucky -- made a 3-pointer from the left wing to give UT a 70-65 lead with 37.6 seconds left.
"Brian (Williams) set a down screen for me, and I came off it wide open," Hopson said. "I had the confidence to knock that shot down. When it left my hand, I knew it was going in. It feels great, man. But not just because it's Kentucky, but just to make that shot in that game situation, it just feels great.
"I didn't make that shot against Kentucky. I made it for Tennessee."
Hopson scored 15 points, but he had been 0-for-5 from long range before that shot.
"It was another big shot by Scotty," Pearl said of Hopson, who had hit a closing-seconds jumper to beat Florida in Thompson-Boling. "That was the only 3-pointer he made in the game, but at least he never stopped competing. He was active."
Senior point guard Bobby Maze, who passed Hopson the ball for the big shot, said the 6-foot-7 sophomore is "starting to grow up really fast.
"He hears everybody all the time talk about what he's doing and what he's not doing and all of that, and he's really hard on himself," Maze said. "But when he just ignores all that and just plays the game, he's pretty special.
"The sky's the limit for my man."
In addition to playing clutch offense down the stretch, the Vols forced Kentucky into three turnovers and 0-for-3 shooting in the final two minutes.
The Wildcats, who lead the SEC in field-goal shooting, shot just 35 percent -- and 2-for-22 from long range -- against UT's rarely seen zone.
"We're not talented enough, necessarily, and I'm not a good enough coach to impose our will on the opponent," Pearl said. "But we are smart enough, experienced enough and talented enough to go, 'OK, this is what they're not good at, so this is what we're going to do, and this is what we have to do.' We don't play zone (defense). That wasn't a great zone. It was a pretty good matchup. We did a nice job with it, but we're not a zone team.
"But at the same time, Syracuse would love to hold that team to 35 percent, and they're a zone team."
National player of the year candidate John Wall, a freshman point guard, led Kentucky with 19 points -- including a handful of circus-style finishes near the rim. Fellow All-America candidate Cousins, also a freshman, had 15 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
"This was a great learning experience for our team," Wildcats coach John Calipari said. "I thought Tennessee played great to start the game. They outhustled us to every ball, but then we kind of fought back. We do not quit. That is all I can ask of my team. To think about that, and have a chance to win on the road, I am stunned.
"But I do not want to take away from Tennessee. When it went 65-65, there was no question in my mind we were winning this game. But you know what? ...They wanted it more than we did. You have got to give them credit."
The Vols won without a big game from Wayne Chism. The senior forward, who has averaged nearly 15 points and nine rebounds in SEC games, had eight points and six rebounds Saturda. He shot just 4-for-12 from the field, 0-for-7 from behind the arc.
Sophomore guard Cameron Tatum had nine points and five rebounds in just 12 minutes. Backup point guard Melvin Goins had seven points, four rebounds and two assists in just 14 minutes. Junior center Brian Williams had just two points in 22 minutes, but he pulled down seven rebounds and drew a crucial charge on Wall in the final minute that practically erased Kentucky's comeback chances.
"When we play like a team, it's a beautiful thing," Chism said. "When different guys are stepping up and making plays all over the floor, that's Tennessee basketball.
"I bet we've had like 15 different lineups this year, but we've had 15 guys step up. That's why we can be a great team."
And beat a great team, in Saturday's case.
"No matter what jersey you're playing against, you've just got to do what you've to do," Prince said. "You don't want to let the other team affect you. We learned from the first game against these guys, and we saw some mistakes on film and made some adjustments.
"We might not have all these lottery picks or whatever, but so what? When we play like we know we can as a team, we can beat anybody."
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