KNOXVILLE-Tennessee shooting guard Scotty Hopson was all smiles Wednesday night. Scoring 23 points and throwing down three monster dunks in a 73-67 victory over South Carolina will do that for a guy.
"I just wanted to stay in an attack mode," said the Vols' leading scorer in both this win and on the season. "We've got to start treating every game like it's our last. We feed off energy, and I wanted to bring the energy tonight."
Had they lost this one it could have creative an overwhelming amount of negative energy for the final five regular-season games of one of the strangest seasons in school history.
A loss would have given UT three home SEC defeats and dropped them to 5-6 in league play. A loss would have begun to cast serious doubt on whether or not the Big Orange would even make the NCAA Tournament.
And against any SEC East squad save the Gamecocks, UT might have indeed come up short.
Sourly eyeing 16 turnovers and 14 missed free throws, Vols coach Bruce Pearl seemed to say as much when he noted, "Definitely not satisfied with our quality of play. You turn it over 16 times, you're not going to beat the best teams on our schedule."
But South Carolina isn't one of the better teams in the SEC, despite a shocking road win over East leader Florida in January.
The Chickens stand 10th in offense in league play, eighth in defense and are losing by an average of five points a night.
Or as losing coach Darrin Horn said, "We started three freshmen out there tonight and the one [freshman] that they've got [Tobias Harris] is a McDonald's All-American."
So the Big Orange somewhat comfortably overcame its miscues and misses and 7-1 disadvantage in blocked shots well enough to improve to 16-10 overall and 6-5 in the league as USC falls to 13-11 and 4-7.
"It's a confidence booster," said Hopson after the Vols put a halt to a three-game losing streak. "Now we've got to start a winning streak. We've got to protect our home."
Given Georgia's gigantic meltdown against visiting Vanderbilt on Wednesday evening -- VU went on a 24-6 run at the finish to win 64-56 -- that streak should reach two straight victories on Saturday. The Vols then travel to Vanderbilt next Tuesday. After that comes a home date with mystifying Mississippi State, a dangerous road game at South Carolina and a home finale with Kentucky.
It's not inconceivable that UT could win them all. It's also not unthinkable that they could lose them all, or at least three of the five.
And Pearl seemed to pay equal attention to both possibilities after this one.
One minute he was lamenting that, "I thought we left a lot of shots out there."
The next he was saying, "It was good to get back on the winning track and it will help our confidence."
One minute he was focusing in on junior guard Cameron Tatum's five missed free throws in six attempts, pointedly observing, "There's no question that missing that free throw [at the end of the Florida game] was a factor in that. That's OK for a freshman. That's not OK for Cam."
But his next comment concerning Tatum was this: "After missing a free throw on two or three occasions, Cameron came out there and had a defensive spurt. He really did a nice job of redeeming himself."
This is the coach's job, of course. Tear down. Build up. Criticize. Cajole. Torment. Teach.
It's how Pearl has reached the NCAA Tournament in each of his first five seasons and how he expects to get there again. So after watching the Vols' first eight SEC games from his living room as he served an SEC suspension, he seems to sense that his team needs the compliments as much as it needs criticism.
So when the subject of Hopson came up, Pearl said, "I thought Scotty did a great job of attacking the rim."
Of course, he also added, "But for Tobias [Harris] and Scotty to not have any assists, that's not a good stat for two or our best players."
Countered a grinning Hopson, saying more than he probably intended to, "Hey, I'm a two [shooting guard]. My job is to score."
If that be true, on this night he did his job well.