Forty playing minutes later, Pearl and his players could raise their index finger.
For the first time in program history, Tennessee will be No. 1.
Thanks to a terrific second half by Memphian J.P. Prince, the Vols upset undefeated Memphis 66-62 to snap three impressive streaks. The Tigers had won 47 in a row at home, 45 in a row during the regular season and 26 in a row this season.
``Welcome back home J.P. Prince,'' shouted Pearl after the game.
Tennessee (25-2) has a more modest nine-game winning streak, but there is nothing modest about being able to proclaim ``We're No. 1.'' It won't become official until Monday, when the polls come out.
The Vols' victory marked the first time a road No. 2 team beat the No. 1 team since 1991. But the No. 2 team is now 5-0 in in-state battles of 1 vs. 2.
Prince, a transfer from Arizona, was honored as the player of the game by the Vol Network, but he wasn't about to take all the credit.
``It's not just for me,'' said Prince, who had all 13 of his points and eight rebounds in the second half. ``It's for the whole city of Knoxville. It's for coach Pearl and all Vol fans across the world.
``We were ready. I refused to lose. … I'd been telling everyone this summer, `I'm not coming here to lose.' I knew they'd have the winning streak. I knew they'd be undefeated.''
What he didn't know was the Tennessee would have just two loses and be ranked No. 2. That just added to the incredible hype that saw ESPN devote hours of pregame publicity and USA Today write a Friday cover story in the sports section about the contest.
``It's going to feel great,'' Pearl said of the anticipated No. 1 ranking.
``I think the kids had confidence they could come in here and win this game.''
They maintained that confidence despite a barrage of 3-pointers by Memphis to start the game. The Tigers hit 7of their first 11 3-point tries, burning the nets from outside like they hadn't done all season.
In fact, Pearl so discounted Memphis' ability to hit from beyond the arc, he played a zone quite a bit to open the game. But even though Memphis was hot from outside - 10 of its first 11 shots were from long-range - the Tigers led only 29-24 halfway through the game. The lead got to 33-26, but the Vols went on an 8-2 run to end the half trailing just 35-34.
``When Memphis makes eight 3s and is only up one,'' Pearl said, ``there had to be concern in the other locker room.
``Memphis was poised to run us out early. That's some of best shooting they had all year long. Fortunately for us, JaJuan Smith hit a couple of huge baskets to keep us in the game. A lot of teams would have been run out of here the first 10 minutes because Memphis played terrific.''
Pearl was convinced Memphis couldn't keep hitting 3s like that.
He was right. After the Tigers' torrid start, they went 1-of-16 from beyond the arc and didn't make a trey in the last 29 minutes of the game.
In the second half, Prince took over. After doing nothing the first 20 minutes, he sparked the Vols by scoring three consecutive baskets to provide a 45-39 edge. When Wayne Chism banked in a 3 for a 50-43 lead, you sensed it was Tennessee's night.
Tyler Smith made two clutch baskets, Prince hit two free throws for a 64-61 lead and after Derrick Rose made one of two free throws with 4.5 seconds left, Chris Lofton, held to seven points after scoring 34 against Memphis last year, sealed the deal with two free throws with 2.9 seconds left.
``How fitting for Chris Lofton to be on the line to seal the win,'' Pearl said.
The Vols have now beaten three top-ranked teams. Tennessee upset Kentucky in 1966 and South Carolina in 1969. The gap of 39 years between wins over No. 1 made this sweet. The fact it was Memphis made it even sweeter for Vol fans.
``I want our fans to enjoy this,'' Pearl said. ``I hope Knoxville is rocking.''
Not just Knoxville but parts of Memphis and Nashville and Chattanooga and the Tri-Cities and other parts in between.
``It's a great accomplishment nobody can ever take away from us,'' said Lofton.
While UT's ability to survive Memphis' initial onslaught was big, so was free-throw shooting and rebounding. The Vols hit 12 of 18 at the line while Memphis was 8 of 17. And UT controlled the glass 50-34 with 19 offensive rebounds. It marked the ninth consecutive game UT has won the battle of the boards.
``Rebounding,'' Pearl said, ``was the story of the game.''
Prince said the Vols were motivated to be strong inside.
``Before the game … ESPN called us soft,'' Prince said. ``We took that personal. Coach Pearl made a point. He said, `Rebound like your life depends on it.'''
UT's life might not have depended on it. But it was the win of a lifetime for so many Vols.
Can you name a bigger UT men's basketball win in the last 30 years?
Can you name a bigger win in program history?
Tennessee was unranked in both of its previous wins over a No. 1 team. So, those wins didn't do for Tennessee what this one will do – elevate the Vols to No. 1 in the nation.
Prince said it's important for Tennessee to celebrate for only a day. The Vols play at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in a key SEC game.
``We've got to keep that No. 1 spot,'' Prince said. ``I don't want to let it go.''
Not when it took 99 years to get it.