"We had to beat Mississippi State to be an NCAA Tournament team," head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "Let's say they beat us tonight and it comes down to Selection Sunday; they're close and we're close ... who do you take? You're going to take Mississippi State (because it won) the head-to-head matchup in Knoxville."
Hopson posted 15 of his points in the second half, with eight coming in the final 3:38. He finished 7 of 11 from the field, 3 of 6 from 3 and 4 of 6 from the foul line. He also grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 3 assists – the last coming on a bullet pass to J.P. Prince for a dunk that widened the gap to 81-74 with just 10.6 seconds left.
Pearl said Hopson's modest contribution in November, December and January was the result of trying too hard to blend in with veteran Vols. The heralded 6-7 rookie has blossomed in February, the coach said, because "he begins to realize, 'Wow, if I don't step up and begin to do what I'm capable of doing, we're going to lose.'
"It took the team struggling to get Scotty to step up and push forward," Pearl added. "He looked ready to shoot and looked ready to score every time he touched the ball (Wednesday night). There was no hesitation whatsoever, and I think you got a little bit of a look at what's to come."
Bobby Maze added 14 points, Tyler Smith 13 and Wayne Chism 12 for the Vols, now 17-10 overall and 8-5 in SEC action. Barry Stewart scored 20 points, Ravern Johnson 18 and Dee Bost 17 for Mississippi State, which slips to 17-11 and 7-6.
MSU's Jarvis Varnado, who leads the NCAA in blocked shots at 5.0 per game, had a relatively quiet performance - 8 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Hopson nailed a clutch 3-pointer to give Tennessee a 73-64 lead with 2:17 to play but Stewart answered with a 3 for MSU. Prince and Maze made a free throw each for Tennessee but Bost answered with a Bulldog basket.
Smith and Hopson sandwiched a free throw apiece around a pair by Bost, then Stewart drained a 3 that narrowed the gap to 77-74 with 30.1 seconds left.
Smith drained a pair of clutch free throws with 28.3 seconds to go, then Hopson found Prince for the climactic dunk at the 10.6-second mark.
Statistically, the game was pretty even. Tennessee shot 47.7 percent (31 of 65) from the field and 33.3 percent (6 of 18) from 3. Mississippi State shot 47.1 percent (25 of 53) and 36.7 percent (11 of 30) from 3. The Bulldogs were a little better from the foul line (15 of 19 to 13 of 18) but the Vols were a little better on the boards (38 rebounds to 31).
Tennessee returns to action at 2 p.m. Sunday, facing Florida at the O'Connell Center in a game that will be televised by CBS.