When Phillip Fulmer resigned as Tennessee's coach, we launched The 50 Best Games of the Fulmer Era, a series that ran for eight months in the offseason and looked back at the very best of Fulmer's seventeen years. Bruce Pearl also brought unprecedented success to the University of Tennessee, and as such we want to look back at his greatest games as well.
So we'll spend this entire week counting down Pearl's Top 25 wins in Knoxville, five at a time every day this week. We're moving forward with this now because while we believe Pearl's on-the-court legacy deserves to be remembered and celebrated, the off-the-court issues and immediacy of the new hire of Cuonzo Martin also make us want to move on as quickly as possible. Plus, basketball is different than football in the sense that while many of us can remember a number of details about each of Fulmer's greatest wins, people tend to only remember the end of basketball games. Also, while the vast majority of Fulmer's biggest wins happened before any of us were blogging, Joel started writing in 2005 and created RTT in 2006, and I started writing in 2006 before joining here in 2008, so we've linked to our recaps of many of Pearl's wins.
We start with 25-21 today - as always, we invite your comments and memories of these games.
25. 2007 NCAA First Round - (5) Tennessee 121 (12) Long Beach State 86
The 5-12 matchup is where upsets thrive, and some of the experts were picking the 49ers. But this was the most comfortable I've ever felt about a first round matchup, which is really saying something considering the Vols were a 2 seed twice under Pearl. LBSU played right into Tennessee's hands, and it showed from the opening tip: UT raced to a 29-12 lead by the second TV timeout, eventually scoring 57 in the first half and 64 in the second. Long Beach State was good - 49.2% from the floor, 12 of 21 from three - but the Vols were better. Turning it over just six times, Tennessee went up and down the floor to the tune of 58.9% from the field, 14 of 27 (51.9%) from the arc, and 21 of 30 at the free throw line. JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton both hit four threes, and this is the only game I know of where three Vols scored 20+ points: Lofton with 25, Juanny 24, and Ramar Smith 22. 121 points tied the school record for a single game total at UT, tied the record for points in the first round in the NCAA Tournament, and remains the fifth highest total in NCAA Tournament history.
24. 2006: Tennessee 76 South Carolina 69 (Columbia)
Bruce Pearl's first SEC game came with the Vols 9-1. Tennessee had the big win at Texas, but suffered a big loss at Oklahoma State. And we were all wondering if the game in Austin was a mirage. In Columbia, the Gamecocks built a twelve point lead at halftime, then went up 40-25 in the first two minutes of the second half. Back to reality, right?
Wrong. Tennessee knocked down an unbelievable 10 of 13 three pointers in the final 18 minutes. Chris Lofton led the way, hitting 6 of 7 for all of his 18 points. The Vols pulled even at 57-57 and just kept shooting, eventually pulling away from a stunned South Carolina team. This game kept the magic going for Pearl and the Vols, the first of many wins that would lead to an SEC Eastern Division title.
23. 2009: Tennessee 86 South Carolina 70 (Columbia)
Three years later the Vols returned to Columbia with the SEC East title on the line, going to the winner between the Vols and Gamecocks. Carolina was undefeated at home with only two games left in the regular season. But the Vols simply ran away from Carolina in this one, as an inconsistent team played its best basketball from start to finish. The Vols shot 54.7% from the floor, led by Tyler Smith's 22 and J.P. Prince's 20. Most importantly, Tennessee pounded Carolina on the glass to the tune of 43-20, as five UT players grabbed at least five rebounds. The Vols led by as many as 20 and were never seriously threatened, wrapping up Pearl's third division title.
22. 2010: #14 Tennessee 61 Florida 60 (Knoxville)
The momentum from UT's five game winning streak after the January 1 arrests had died in consecutive losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt. But at this point, Florida was the cure to anything that ailed Tennessee: this win made Bruce Pearl an unbelievable 8-1 against Billy Donovan. It is also the last UT victory in the series, as the Gators have now won four straight.
The Vols came back from a ten point deficit just before halftime, and the lead went back and forth in the second half. Wayne Chism led the way with 16 points and 11 rebounds, but down one with twenty-four seconds to play, Bruce Pearl went to Scotty Hopson with the game on the line for the first time...and Hopson delivered:
21. 2008: #7 Tennessee 80 #14 Vanderbilt 60 (Knoxville)
Though Vanderbilt would beat #1 Tennessee in Nashville later this season, the meeting in Knoxville was definitive proof that the Vols were the better team in 2008. The Vols embarrassed Vandy, building a thirteen point lead at halftime and continuing to roll in the second. UT forced 21 turnovers and held the Dores to 36.8% from the field and just 3 of 21 from the arc. This is the definitive Wayne Chism over A.J. Ogilvy game, as Chism had 18 points and 18 rebounds - the highest rebounding total for a player in the entire decade - and UT dunked on Vandy at will. This is the best example of the 2008 team simply imposing its will against a good opponent.