Vols hold off ETSU, 78-66

With 5:21 left and Tennessee leading ETSU just 61-55 Wednesday night, Skylar McBee started toward the scorer's table and Scotty Hopson started a 3-pointer toward the basket.

McBee never reached his destination ... mostly because Hopson's 3-pointer did. When his trey swished through the netting, head coach Bruce Pearl decided to stick with the veteran (Hopson) and summoned the freshman (McBee) back to the bench. The move paid off. Moments later, when ETSU again trimmed the lead to six (64-58) Hopson drained a fallaway 10-footer from the lane that enabled the Vols to pull away for a 78-66 victory.

It was an ending filled with irony. Hopson had made just 1 of 7 shots from 3 entering the final 6 minutes, whereas McBee was 3 of 3 from beyond the arc. Thus, Pearl's decision to replace the former with the latter made perfect sense ... until Hopson altered the strategy by nailing his clutch shot at the 5:20 mark.

No one was happier to see Hopson's big shot drop than McBee, even though it kept him from entering the game in the final minutes.

"Yeah, I was going to the scorer's table to check in, then they called me back," he conceded. "That's what needed to happen. Scotty hit a 3 and looked like he was getting back into rhythm. I was glad to go back and sit on the bench and let him make another couple of shots."

The 11th ranked Vols improve to 6-1 with the hard-fought victory. The Bucs slip to 4-4 with the defeat. Simply put, Tennessee looked like a tired and somewhat distracted basketball team.

"We played well enough to win," Pearl said, "which is obviously what I wanted to do, considering Thanksgiving (last week) and final exams (next week) and the practice schedule. It's really been important for our guys to hunker down in the classroom."

The Vols had to hunker down on the court just to win this game. Looking more methodical than motivated, they produced 22 assists and just 6 turnovers, while shooting an adequate 47.5 percent. But they outrebounded the shorter Bucs just 34-32 and forced a mere 13 turnovers.

"It was a solid game," Pearl said. "We obviously handled the ball better, with 22 assists and only 6 turnovers. But they were a tough matchup. They were so much smaller than us that they spread us out some."

Forward Tyler Smith led the Vols with 15 points. The senior All-American hit a crucial three-point play to provided a 72-61 lead with 1:25 left, then added a pair of clutch free throws inside the final minute. He also produced 4 assists and 3 rebounds, prompting Pearl to call him "one of the most productive players in college basketball."

Hopson added 10 points, despite making just 4 of 14 shots. McBee added 9, as did Cameron Tatum. The guys who normally do their scoring in close - Wayne Chism (3 of 6), Brian Williams (4 of 7) and J.P. Prince (1 of 4) - missed some point-blank shots to help ETSU stick around.

As Pearl put it: "If we finish around the basket and score more of our inside shots - that was the place to go with our superior size - then the margin of victory obviously would've been much greater."

Justin Tubbs, a 6-3 transfer from Alabama, led ETSU with 22 points. The Vols limited 6-4 Tommy Hubbard to 11 points, seven below his scoring average.

Despite the relatively narrow margin of victory, Pearl seemed quite pleased with the win. He has a high regard for the Bucs.

"They're really athletic, and they're going to be good in their league (Atlantic Sun)," the coach said. "They're going to be a really good team in that league."

ETSU played superior defense, causing one shot-clock violation and forcing the Vols to fire several desperation shots to avoid violations.

"They were packed in in man-to-man and packed in in zone," Pearl said. "We wanted to control the game ourselves offensively. That's why our assist/turnover ratio was so good. We respected our opponent. We weren't concerned with blowing them out. We were concerned with getting the win."

Mission accomplished.

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