NASHVILLE — At one point Tuesday night, even Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl was beginning to question whether his team was capable of erasing a swelling deficit against in-state rival Vanderbilt.
Tennessee junior guard Scotty Hopson scored a game-high 19 points in the Vols' 60-51 win at in-state rival Vanderbilt on Tuesday night.
"I had my doubts early in the second half," Pearl said.
He probably wasn't alone.
But the Volunteers, needing a win to begin playing their way off the NCAA tournament bubble, overcame an 11-point, second-half margin and scored the final 11 points in a 60-51 victory over the 18th-ranked Commodores before a crowd of 14,316 at Memorial Gym.
Coming off losses in four of its last five games, Tennessee (17-11, 7-6 SEC) turned the tables on Vanderbilt (20-7, 8-5) by completing a sweep of the regular-season series between the two teams after losing to the Commodores in both meetings last year.
"We finally gave our fans something to cheer about," said Pearl, who paused to celebrate with UT supporters lingering near the Vols' bench as he left the court.
"We put our fans through a lot this year — on and off the court — so it was good to reward them a little bit for staying with us."
Oddly enough, Tennessee did it by overcoming its longtime nemesis: free-throw shooting.
The Vols scored all 11 points in their game-ending run on free throws, going 11-of-12 at the line after hitting only three of their first nine attempts. Junior guard Scotty Hopson, who's from nearby Hopkinsville, Ky., made the first six of the late foul shots to give UT a 55-51 advantage.
Vols coach Bruce Pearl says his team "made some winning plays on both ends of the floor" to rally past rival Vanderbilt in the second half.
"It just shows my growth as a player," said Hopson, who scored 12 of his game-high 19 points in the second half. "I'm just trying to, whenever the opportunity proceeds me, just put the ball in my hands and make plays. Everyone on this basketball team is looking at me, obviously, to make plays for them and put them on my back.
"I just had to get to the rim and either score the basketball or get foul calls and step up and make some free throws."
On a night when reports surfaced that Tennessee officials had received a notice of allegations from the NCAA on the findings of a prolonged investigation into the school's football, men's basketball and baseball programs, the Vols did their part to soften the blow of the potentially bad news that was expected to be announced Wednesday.
Pearl didn't confirm that UT had received the letter — "I've been in Nashville," he said — but acknowledged that the issue has been difficult to ignore in recent months.
"We've got to continue to go through the process," Pearl said. "Right now, we're still in-season. There's a process that needs to be followed, and we're going to go through that. It's been difficult, but we've tried not to let that prevent our staff from working and our players from performing."
While shooting only 38.6 percent, Tennessee clamped down on defense to hold Vanderbilt — the conference's highest-scoring team in league play — well below its previous season average of 77.6 points per game.
"We made some winning plays on both ends of the floor — and our defense," Pearl said.
The Commodores, who had their five-game winning streak snapped, went scoreless over the last five minutes and made only one field goal in the final 10:31.
"We're confident in our defense," said UT senior point guard Melvin Goins, who scored 15 points and recorded three of the Vols' 15 steals. "What we wanted to do was try to bother them and disrupt their offense."
"I think that's what won the basketball game."
Commodores junior center Festus Ezeli added 11 points, and junior forward Steve Tchiengang had 10 points before both players fouled out in the final 2:52.
"I thought we got out-toughed and out-physicaled," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "I thought we had guys who were trying to be individual players and not team players. ... (Tennessee) played well defensively, but we somewhat made it easy for them by getting away from what we wanted to do.
"We had nine fouls on our five-man in the second half. That's ridiculous."
Hopson, Goins and Vols freshman forward Tobias Harris, who recorded a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, benefited from several of those fouls. Harris went 3-for-4 on free throws in the final 44.9 seconds, and Goins sank the last pair of foul shots.
"We never gave up. We always believed," Goins said. "I came into (a second-half) timeout and was just telling my guys, 'Believe, believe. Believe that we're going to win this ballgame,' and we fought to the end.
"We had big-time players come in and make big plays."
Tennessee will return home to play Mississippi State at 6 p.m. EST Saturday still looking to polish its resume for the NCAA tournament a bit more before the end of the regular season.
"I still don't even think it's time to relax," Hopson said. "We've still got to win the rest of these ballgames to be in a good position. Each of them is just another notch in our belt, so we've just got to keep winning."
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