NASHVILLE — The unavoidably unfortunate tale of Tennessee’s basketball season seemed to resurface with 6 minutes, 54 seconds left in Tuesday night’s game at Vanderbilt.
A poor call at Vanderbilt cost Steven Pearl another opportunity like this, but the Vols prevailed, anyway.
Vols forward Steven Pearl, who isn’t on the floor to pile up points, did what savvy seniors and sons of college basketball coaches are supposed to do.
He made a smart play at a crucial point in the game.
With UT on a 15-6 run but still trailing by two points, Pearl positioned himself perfectly to pounce on a loose ball John Jenkins had started to corral near the Vols’ 3-point line.
Pearl, both arms extended in front of his body, cleanly picked Jenkins’ pocket. But the players’ ensuing collision — which didn’t include much contact and happened as soon as Pearl got the ball — sent the sweet-shooting Commodores’ sophomore star tumbling to the floor.
“We just had a great angle on it,” said UT coach Bruce Pearl, Steven’s father. “We had a great angle, and (Steven) just kind of got down like a linebacker, and he went and tackled the ball, and it was just a good play.
“Rather than swiping at it, he just kind of swallowed the ball up. It was a good play.”
Perhaps it was more than that. Considering the timing, perhaps the play was perfect.
“It was just such an emotional game, and it was such a big part in the game, and I had made the big play,” Steven Pearl said. “If he had gotten the ball, they were going down to the other end for a dunk, because (Jeffery) Taylor had run out, and Jenkins would have had an easy pass to him, and that would have been a huge swing.
“To get that ball clean, I was really excited.”
Emotions changed quite quickly, though.
Mike Kitts thought it wasn’t a perfect play.
Kitts thought it was an illegal play.
So it wasn’t a perfect play.
And, with all due respect to Bruce — the father and coach of the player — it wasn’t a good play.
It was illegal.
Because Mike Kitts said so.
Moments after Steven Pearl’s slick swipe, Kitts — a veteran official — inexplicably made one of the worst foul calls most of us will ever see. It was certainly one of the worst calls many of the assembled media in Memorial Gym had ever seen, and some had been covering the game for decades.
It might have been a foul by Jenkins, if anything.
But Kitts, who perturbed Bruce Pearl and his players much of the evening, whistled the younger Pearl for a foul.
“They may have missed that,” Bruce Pearl said.
What a polite way to put it, Bruce.
But that’s not how the fiery coach and his players — particularly his fiery son — acted immediately after seeing Kitts blow his whistle and send Jenkins, an 89 percent free-throw shooter, to the line for a one-and-one.
“When Mike called the foul, ...yeah, I got a little upset,” Steven Pearl said with a smile. “I think we all knew I got the ball clean. It was just a tough call.”
Anger quickly turned into focus, though, and the Vols went back about their business during the under-8-minute media timeout.
“I acted like I was upset because they may have missed that one, but just go back in the huddle,” Pearl said.
And in that huddle, junior guard Scotty Hopson and several teammates decided one more bad break — albeit a very bad break — was not going to stop the Vols from winning a game they felt like they needed to win.
“We were on a run, and guys were just making good plays to get us into this basketball game,” said Hopson, whose flawless free-throw finish pushed him to a game-high 19 points. “Steven made a good play, but (the call) just went the wrong way, obviously. But our veteran guys stayed poised, and the rest of our guys stayed poised, and we stayed together and made big plays down the stretch.
“I knew guys would step up and stay poised.”
Junior guard Cameron Tatum felt the same way. That might be difficult for some — including yours truly — to believe, but the Vols said Tuesday was always going to end differently than their other recent close games because it had to end differently.
“It fueled us, man,” Tatum said of Kitts’ miss. “That’s the truth. It fueled us. In order to win, you’ve got to take the fight to them, and then you’ll get the calls. We knew we just had to keep pushing, and we would be fine.
“We didn’t let it bring us down. We let it fuel us.”
Steven Pearl wanted to move on after the timeout, too, but he wanted more quick chat with Kitts before heading back to the floor.
The player wanted to apologize.
“I like Mike,” Steven Pearl said of the referee he addresses on a first-name basis. “Mike's a great guy. I felt bad for kind of freaking out. ...It happens. We all make mistakes. I went over and patted Mike on the butt. He's a great guy and a great official. I apologized. I needed to.
“He’s done my dad’s game for years, and he’s done our games since I’ve been here, and he’s always been nice and respectful. He’s a great ref.”
Pearl the player then jogged down the court and took his closest-to-the-rim spot outside the paint, awaiting Jenkins’ one-on-one opportunity — which almost always ends in two more points for the ‘Dores.
“We figured he’d make the two free throws, but we had a good play called and we knew we could come back down and score again,” Steven Pearl said. “We just had to keep our cool and understand that we still had plenty of time.”
But Jenkins missed the front-end shot.
And Steven Pearl pulled down the rebound.
“I guess Karma got him,” the younger Pearl said. “It ended up being a pretty good swing for us.”
A “pretty good” swing?
Pick your preferred way to dissect UT’s dominance throughout the final 13 minutes in one of the SEC’s toughest road venues — 29-9, 23-5 and 11-0 all sound better than “pretty good.”
Sounds more like a “season-saving” swing, doesn’t it?
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247