Vols pound Pitt, 83-76

Who's afraid of the Big Bad East? Not the Tennessee Vols, apparently.

Bruce Pearl's upstart squad dumped the Big East's best team, third-ranked Pitt, by an 83-76 score this afternoon in the SEC/Big East Challenge at Pittsburgh. Fifteen days earlier the Vols bounced the league's second-best team, sixth-ranked Villanova, by a 78-68 score.

The final vs. Pitt was not indicative of Tennessee's dominance. The Big Orange trailed 2-0, then led the rest of the way. The bulge was 37-25 at halftime and peaked at 21 points (61-40) with 9:37 to go. The final margin was the closest the Panthers got in the second half, mostly because the Vols were conceding baskets in the closing seconds rather than risk fouling.

What makes Tennessee's 2-0 record vs. the Big East's best even more surprising is the fact the Vols were pegged as the No. 4 team in the SEC's Eastern Division during preseason.

Regardless, 11th-ranked Tennessee should be moving into the national top 10 after improving its record to 7-0 and reducing Pitt's record to 10-1.

Speaking on his post-game show, Pearl said he was "really, really pleased with the way we competed.... The team is developing a personality and a chemistry and an identity."

It's becoming increasingly obvious that Tennessee's identity is as a tenacious defensive team. The Vols limited the Panthers to 40.7 percent shooting and forced 15 turnovers. Pitt's star guard, Ashton Gibbs, scored 15 points but made just one of his first nine shots. By the time he warmed up to hit three of his last four, the outcome no longer was in doubt.

Pearl conceded that his team has a defensive mindset - something he credits to the fact that seniors Brian Williams, John Fields, Melvin Goins and Steven Pearl are all better defenders than scorers.

Offensively, the Vols got career highs from Scotty Hopson (27 points) and Goins (19). Hopson drained 10 of 13 shots, including 3 of 3 from beyond the arc. Goins made just 4 of 9 from the field but nailed 10 of 12 free throws - many coming in the final minutes as Pitt struggled to whittle a double-digit deficit. Cameron Tatum chipped in 14 points.

"Scotty Hopson was patient - 10 for 13, three for three from 3 and four for five from the line," Pearl said. "Wow! What a night!"

Hopson's brilliance opened up a lot of other offensive options for the Vols.

"He was special," Pearl said. "He was brilliant - the way he attacked the rim, the way he attacked the ball screen. Because Scotty got off a little bit on ball screen, those (Pitt) guys started having to jump out on him, which let me play-call some things and we got some other guys involved."

Goins, for instance.

"We got really good point-guard play," Pearl noted. "Melvin Goins ... you just can't say enough about his defense, his toughness, the way he handles the ball, making free throws down the stretch. It's wonderful to see."

Tennessee prevailed in spite of the fact all three of its centers fouled out. Starter Williams managed 4 points and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes. Second-teamer Fields added 5 points and 5 rebounds in 16 minutes. Third-teamer Kenny Hall produced 0 points and 1 rebound before fouling out in just 5 minutes.

Brad Wanamaker led Pitt with 21 points and 9 assists. Gilbert Brown and Gibbs chipped in 15 points each.

Tennessee shot a sizzling 56.3 percent from the floor (27 of 48) and 63.6 percent from 3-point range (7 of 11). The Vols won the backboards 34-32 against a Pitt team that came in ranked No. 1 nationally in rebound margin at 16.7 per game.

The Panthers stayed in the game by virtue of shooting 42 foul shots, even though they made just 25 for a 59.5-percent success rate.

Tennessee returns to action Tuesday night, hosting an Oakland team that pushed seventh-ranked Michigan State before bowing 77-76.

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