"I felt like we had a great chance to win this game going in," said Goins of the team's mindset. "Our preparation was great, and our coaches did a great job. We came in focused, and we knew we had to play tough to have a chance to win."
Brad Wanamaker led the Panthers with 21 points, nine assists and five steals but the Panthers fell behind by too much, trailing 37-25 at the half as Tennessee limited them to 32.1% shooting in the first twenty minutes. Ashton Gibbs and Gilbert Brown scored fifteen apiece while Travon Woodall added 11 off the bench, but the Vols were able to make up for 20 turnovers with good shot selection (and shot-making) throughout. Tennessee made 56.3% of their shots from the field and knocked down seven of eleven from beyond the arc. Going into the game Tennessee had an offensive efficiency rating of 108.3 and an effective field goal percentage of 51.7%. Coach Pearl's team easily surpassed those numbers on Saturday afternoon, finishing with an efficiency of 116.9 and an effective FG% of 63.5%. Pittsburgh had few answers defensively for a team that relished the physical nature of the game and in most scramble situations was the first to the floor for loose balls.
"It was our most physical game by far and it's something that we knew was going to happen and we were still surprised," said Wanamaker. "They brought it to us and they just kept coming. It felt like a conference game, but any time we play a good opponent, it feels like a Big East game to us. The best teams in the country are usually the most physical. That's why they're good." (quotes courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Athletics)
Tennessee has taken on three solid tests thus far (VCU and Villanova in New York) and passed all three, not allowing the off-court issues regarding NCAA rules violations to disrupt their focus. The Vols have built upon their run to last year's Elite 8, when they showed the ability to toughen up and win games that don't involve running up and down the court for 40 minutes, which makes them an early threat to produce a similar tournament run. But they'll only go as far as Hopson can take them despite the presence of other talented players (most notably Tobias Harris) on the roster, provided he shows leadership and aggression as he did against Pitt. While many have watched this team wondering when the first crack would show, Tennessee has steadily built itself into the early favorite to win the SEC East.
Other Notable Happenings
1. Louisville's bench helps spearhead and upset of UNLV.
While many will give the lion's share of the attention for Louisville's 77-69 win over previously undefeated UNLV to Preston Knowles, who scored all 20 of his points in the second half, there are two other guards who merit mention. Chris Smith and Kyle Kuric scored 17 points apiece off the bench as the Cardinals outscored the Rebels 42-26 in bench points, controlling the battle against a team that's been lauded for its depth to this point in the season. Tre'Von Willis (17 points) and Oscar Bellfield (16 points) led the way for UNLV but their 18 turnovers led to 20 Louisville points off of turnovers, and the Cardinals also grabbed 13 offensive rebounds. Over the course of nine minutes in the second half Louisville went on a 21-6 run to go up by thirteen with three minutes left in the game, and while UNLV tried to fight their way back into the game late that was pretty much all she wrote. Say what you want about the fact that the Cards' two best wins have both been at home, but there's no denying the fact that this team has a far better composition than last year's bunch.
2. Gonzaga and Marquette miss vital opportunities to pick up resume-building wins.
Between the Bulldogs and Golden Eagles they had one credible resume-building victory to this point in the season (Gonzaga beating Marquette by 3 in Kansas City) going into Saturday's action. While that fact wouldn't put an unbearable amount of pressure on both teams it was obvious that they needed wins in order to add some meat to their profiles. Instead, both dropped close contests with Marquette falling to rival Wisconsin at home while Gonzaga lost by three at Notre Dame. Neither one would be considered a bad loss by anyone, but come March if you're spending more time trumpeting close losses instead of wins you're more than likely headed to the NIT. Jordan Taylor led the Badgers to the 69-64 win in Milwaukee with 21 points and three assists while Jon Leuer added 17, and Wisconsin grabbed 15 offensive rebounds as well. And while there was more offense in South Bend, Notre Dame outscored Gonzaga 24-10 from the foul line in winning 83-79. Carleton Scott led all scorers with 23 points while Tim Abromaitis added 21 for the Irish, trumping one of Elias Harris' more efficient offensive performances of the season. Gonzaga now has four losses against Top 25 teams this season and they're running out of opportunities to pick up a signature win, and the same goes for a Marquette team that hasn't played as tough of a schedule. Both teams need to pick up that needed win soon since conference games can only take you so far, even if you play in the Big East as Marquette does.
3. Texas A&M stuffs Washington in College Station.
The long-winded, meandering Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series is still ongoing, and Texas A&M picked up the seventh win for the Big 12 thanks in large part to their late-game defense. After a pair of Nathan Walkup free throws with 4:08 remaining the Aggies failed to score again but a David Lobeau block of an Isaiah Thomas jumper with a second remaining preserved the outcome. Washington shot just 37.7% from the field while also turning the ball over 20 times against Mark Turgeon's tough man-to-man defense, and they were particularly rough on Thomas. The senior, who's considered to be a Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate, scored 13 points but made just two of seven shots from the field, turned the ball over six times and finished with a plus/minus of minus-13. The Aggies weren't much better offensively but when you grab 16 offensive rebounds you can make up for shooting 41.1% from the field. Walkup and Lobeau grabbed four apiece while leading scored Khris Middleton (17 points) finished with three offensive rebounds, underlining the need for the Husky big men to progress as the season wears on if they're to make noise outside of the Pac-10.
Top Five Games
1. (8) Michigan State 77, Oakland 76 Greg Kampe's team nearly pulled off the upset at The Palace in Auburn Hills, but Kalin Lucas led the way with 25 points and a pair of big shots late as the Spartans avoided another loss. Larry Wright scored 21 points and Keith Benson added 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Grizzlies.
2. Fordham 84, St. John's 81 The Rams capped a bad week for the Red Storm, picking up their first win over a Big East opponent since beating St. John's in 2000. Brenton Butler's jumper with 9.2 seconds left gave Fordham a three-point lead, and a pair of Dwight Hardy three-point attempts missed the mark. Hardy scored a career-high 30 while Fordham was led by Butler, who finished with 22.
3. North Carolina 96, Long Beach State 91 The Tar Heels nearly blew a 17-point second half lead against the 49ers in Chapel Hill, but thanks to Harrison Barnes (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Larry Drew II (11 of 13 points in the second half) they survived. T.J. Robinson's career-high 31 points led the way for Long Beach State.
4. Texas A&M 63, (22) Washington 62
5. Monmouth 78, Hartford 74 (2 OT) Despite falling behind 15-0 to start the game, Monmouth beat the Hawks in double overtime in West Long Branch. Joe Zeglinski led the visiting Hawks with 31 points, nine rebounds and seven assists while Gary Cox (23 points) and Phil Wait (11 points, 16 rebounds) led the victors.
Five Notable Performances
1. F Brandon Bowdry (Eastern Michigan) 31 points and 19 rebounds in the Eagles' 68-65 overtime loss to Detroit. Freshman Ray McCallum Jr. led the visiting Titans with 31 points and eight rebounds.
2. F Kenny Lawson Jr. (Creighton) 30 points and 18 rebounds in the Blue Jays' 82-75 win over St. Joseph's in Omaha.
3. G Jimmer Fredette (BYU) 33 points, nine rebounds and three assists in the Cougars' 87-65 beating of Arizona, moving BYU to 10-0 on the season.
4. G Joe Zeglinski (Hartford) 31 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in the Hawks' 78-74 double overtime loss at Monmouth.
5. G/F Marshon Brooks (Providence) 33 points and eight rebounds in the Friars' 82-70 win over Alabama.