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Top 25 Games of the Bruce Pearl Era: 20-16

20. 2007 - Tennessee 89 #18 Kentucky 85 (Knoxville)

As Bernard King's jersey went into the rafters, Bruce Pearl got his first win over Kentucky in Knoxville.  Just over two weeks after the Cats blasted a Lofton-less Tennessee team in Lexington, the Vols got their payback:  a spurt of five straight three pointers from Lofton, Jordan Howell, and Ryan Childress broke the game open late in the first half.  The Vols led by as many as 16 in the second before UK did what UK does:  the Cats came roaring back to tie it at 77-77 at the under four timeout.  But the Vols used defense and free throw shooting to ice it:  two turnovers in the final 90 seconds, and 5 of 6 at the line from Lofton always kept the Vols in front.  "That's six in a row for Bernard," Pearl jabbed after the game.  This was the first UT win over UK in Knoxville in five years and the last time the Vols would face Tubby Smith.

RTT:  Hulk Smash Wendigo.

19. 2006 NCAA First Round - (2) Tennessee 63 (15) Winthrop 61

On our podcast a few weeks ago, we talked about Bruce Pearl's first team and the way it appeared to hit a wall in the home stretch:  after starting 20-4 and winning the SEC East, the Vols went 2-4 in their final six games.  The fact that this was a 2/15 game may take something away from it, and you can see that UT was taxed throughout this game, which shouldn't have been close on paper.  But Winthrop pushed the Vols all the way, with nine ties and eight lead changes.  The game was tied at 61-61 for more than two minutes at the end, with neither team able to make a play to take the lead.  The Vols got the last real shot however, and Chris Lofton had one more big shot left in his sophomore season:

Though the Vols were bounced by Wichita State in the following round, this game was a nice epilogue to Pearl's magical first season, and was the Vols' first NCAA Tournament win in six years.

18. 2010 NCAA First Round:  (6) Tennessee 62 (11) San Diego State 59

Four seasons later, the Vols scored an even more important first round victory.  This one gets the nod over Winthrop both for degree of difficulty and because of what this win ultimately led to.  After Seth Davis immediately picked the Vols to lose during the Selection Sunday telecast, the Aztecs looked to prove him right.  SDSU built a 14-10 lead in the first eight minutes, but then the Vols opened it up to an eight point halftime advantage.  Twice in the second half it looked like Tennessee was going to pull away, but twice the Aztecs came back.  The second time saw San Diego State close to 57-56 in the final minute, but Melvin Goins - 4 of 5 from three on the night - buried one more from beyond the arc with 19 seconds left to give the Vols security.  The Aztecs would miss a three at the buzzer to send Tennessee through to the second round.  We found out this year exactly how good of a team we beat.

RTT Game Recap.

17. 2007:  Tennessee 79 #14 Oklahoma State 77 (Nashville)

If you strip away rivalry and championships, this is just one of the most compelling individual basketball games I've ever seen.    In the last six minutes there were six lead changes and three ties.  This was a true maturation game for Pearl and the Vols:  Tennessee couldn't shoot (4 of 23 from the arc) and couldn't make free throws (19 of 32), but still beat an undefeated Oklahoma State team.  They did it with defense, forcing 22 turnovers.  And they simply did it with heart - check out the work of Dane Bradshaw in the final minutes:

RTT:  Blender set to discombobulation.

16. 2011 NIT Championship:  #24 Tennessee 78 #7 Villanova 68

The 2011 season will always be remembered more for what happened off the court than on it, but don't forget how important this one was at the time.  The Pittsburgh game would overshadow it a couple weeks later, but at the time this was a Tennessee team that once again looked distractions in the face and responded with its best basketball.  Four players scored in double figures, something we wouldn't see from this team again.  And Melvin Goins, the lone starter who didn't, forced Corey Fisher into six turnovers and limited Villanova's offense.  This win ensured that each one of Bruce Pearl's teams had tangible success:  three teams won the SEC East, and of the three that didn't, two made the Sweet 16 and this one won the first tournament of any kind for this program in ten years.

RTT:  Vols are Preseason NIT Champions