The Vol Nation wasn't exactly enamored with the 2009-10 squad when it resembled last year's team in November and December. But, with four players suspended, the short-handed Vols came out fired up and focused Wednesday night against Charlotte.
The result: The Vols were scrappy, the fans were happy and the Big Orange rolled to an 88-71 victory. Pearl's first words in the post-game press conference reflected as much.
"I really appreciate the crowd," he said. "I really appreciate their support, their energy, their being here. I think the guys felt their energy."
No doubt. Senior post Wayne Chism applauded the fans by noting: "I was so happy they was here tonight. They did a great job. They stuck with us through thick and thin."
Freshman forward Kenny Hall thought the noise in Thompson-Boling Arena helped carry the Vols to victory.
"I ain't never heard TBA that loud since I've been playing here," he said, adding that the arena was so noisy prior to pregame warmups that "I was just thinking, 'Man! I can't wait till I get out there.'"
The Vols were so appreciative of the support that they strolled into the stands following the game to show their gratitude.
"We wanted to thank folks for coming," Pearl said. "We know it's cold and everybody was not knowing what to expect. I didn't know what to expect. But our fans were terrific."
Sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge seemed to relish mingling with the fans more than any other Vol.
"I told them each time I shook someone's hand, 'Thank you for coming. It means a lot,' and it does," he said. "Nobody could've shown up but they came with their families. That means a lot to us as players to know they still support us. It motivates us to continue to do better."
As happened in Pearl's early years on The Hill, the Vols seemed to feed off the fans' excitement level. Even short-handed, Tennessee played one of its best halves of the year in rolling to a 51-29 intermission lead.
"The guys stepped up, played with confidence, played with freedom, played with energy," Pearl said.
Although "the guys" fell behind 11-14 early, the fans continued to cheer and exhort them. The Vols responded with a 14-0 run that produced a 25-14 lead.
"When things don't go well, the people that have your back (fans) are the ones that come to your aid," Pearl said. "The Tennessee family is pulling together."
One distant member of the family, former All-American Bernard King, drove up from Georgia to attend the game and deliver a personal message to the Vols prior to tipoff.
"He delivered a terrific message," Pearl said. "He talked about getting knocked down and the courage you have to have to try to stand up. Bernard came for us, and we appreciate him being here."
Tennessee's players were appreciative, all right.
"He just said we're a family," Woolridge said. "For someone of his caliber to come back and talk to us and preach family at a time like this definitely shows that there is a family in this Vol Nation. It's a blessing to have something like that."