There was no Bruce Pearl in Thompson Boling Arena early Saturday morning to energize his players, not to mention the Rocky Top faithful that gathered in large attendance several hours before the Tennessee Vols' noon tip-off against SEC in-state rival Vanderbilt Commodores, as ESPN's College GameDay crew made its first stop of the year in Knoxville.
Pearl could only watch his team from his television, as he was in his third game of an eight-game suspension from coaching in conference play.
Despite opening up conference play with a loss at Arkansas (68-65), at home against Florida (81-75 OT) and the odds favoring Vanderbilt, motivation was not a problem at all for assistant head coach Tony Jones and the Tennessee Vols.
On Friday night, Pearl met with his team and had one message for them: "Win the game at all costs."
Those words seemed to have a positive effect on his team Saturday afternoon, as the Vols overcame a 17-point deficit in the first half by outscoring the 'Dores 47-34 in the second half to go on to win by the final score of 67-64 in front of a packed home arena.
The second-half surge from Tennessee (11-6, 1-2) was led by junior Scotty Hopson, who scored 14 of his game-high 16 points in the second half, as he found success driving down the lane.
Leading Vanderbilt (12-4, 1-2) in scoring was John Jenkins with 21 points.
The win for the Vols is not only their first victory in SEC play, but also Jones' first win since taking over and it might continue to be a trend until Pearl returns if Jones continues to don the famous orange blazer, which he did Saturday afternoon for the first time.
However, early on in the game it looked as if the Vols would drop to an 0-3 start in SEC play as the first half was highlighted by mistakes for the Big Orange; fortunately, their opposition made just enough as well to keep the deficit to a minimum for the Vols.
Neither team's offense showed up in the first half for the most part.
Vanderbilt was first to reach double digits, as John Jenkins assisted Rod Odom for a two-point layup to put the 'Dores up 10-8 with 10:21 left in the first half. Jenkins then led a 20-5 'Dores run against the Vols, scoring half of those points, and with 1:45 left before the half Vandy had its largest lead of the game, 30-13.
However, the Vols cut the lead to 30-20 at the break, as Skylar McBee knocked down all three free throws with three seconds left. Tony Jones didn't have much to be pleased about heading into the break, with his team shooting a dismal 20 percent from the floor, but realized his team was lucky to be still within striking distance in the game.
The run not only seemed to ignite the players in orange in white on the court but brought to life the 21,000-plus clad in orange in Thompson Boling Arena for the second half of play.
The second-half performance from Hopson and the Vols looked like a whole new team from the first half, as instead of forcing contested jumpers they began to find success in driving down the lane, which opened up uncontested three-point shots for McBee and Cameron Tatum.
After McBee sunk two long-range threes, with his second one being a four-point play, the Vols trailed Vandy 46-39 with 12:00 left in regulation.
Minutes later, Tatum cut the deficit to 48-44 after draining a three-point jumper assisted by Hopson. Then with 5:21 left to play, Hopson drained a two-point basket to tie things up at 56-56.
Both teams battled back and forth the rest of the way, but the Vols took the lead for good at the 1:09 mark, as Tatum found the driving Tobias Harris for a layup to take the lead 65-64.
Harris knocked down both free throws with three seconds left in the game for his 14th and 15th points of the game. Vanderbilt's inbounds pass was intercepted by Brian Williams to end the game at 67-64.
Jones and company celebrated on the court for many minutes after the game.
Harris finished just shy of his fifth double-double of the season with 15 points and nine rebounds. Williams led all players in rebounding with 12 boards, eight of which came on the offensive end.
As of now, Rocky Top seems to have found somewhat of a rejuvenation after defeating its in-state rival, but the Vols will still have their hands full, as they will take on the Georgia Bulldogs (13-3, 2-1) in Stegeman Coliseum on Tuesday night and will follow that with a trip to ninth-ranked UConn (14-2) on Saturday.
Pearl will most likely need to find a few more words of advice and motivation for his players if they want to continue their resilience that they have shown throughout the last two seasons.
The Vols have proved that they can contend with the big teams, as they beat No. 3 Pitt and No. 7 Villanova on the road already this year. Jones and company would roll heads once again if they can handle Trey Thompkins of Georgia and Kemba Walker of UConn in their next two upcoming games.
Rocky Top is hoping the orange blazer will bring success yet again.
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