Tennessee guard Melvin Goins (2) drives against Oakland guard Reggie Hamilton (23) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2010 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee men’s basketball team was due a night like this. So was Oakland.
The seventh-ranked Volunteers, one of the nation’s hottest teams, fell victim to a team that had been sneaking up on the nation’s elite.
Oakland, which lost by one point to then-eighth-ranked Michigan State on Saturday, closed with a fury Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena and stunned the Vols, 89-82.
The Golden Grizzlies (6-5), who have played a brutal schedule for a mid-major program, finally got their signature win. And it was a bold signature. The Vols (7-1) had defeated Big East powers Pittsburgh and Villanova away from home this season.
“You just have to believe in yourself,” longtime Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “We’re as good as these teams. We missed free throws down the stretch against Michigan State, but we didn’t today. That’s why we won.
“I have a very good team because I’ve got very good players.”
UT coach Bruce Pearl, who has known Kampe for decades, didn’t disagree.
“They’ve knocked on the door; they’ve knocked on the door; they’ve knocked on the door with a lot of people,” Pearl said. “They finally knocked one down.”
And despite playing a team with a much deeper bench, the Grizzlies waited to do it.
UT controlled most of the game, but Oakland overturned an eight-point deficit with less than seven minutes left by finishing the game on a 21-6 run — thanks in no small part to 22-for-28 free-throw shooting.
The Vols led 50-39 at halftime.
“Top 10 teams, when they get up on you, they step on your throat and finish you off,” said Vols senior center Brian Williams, who began well but finished with four free-throw misses in the final 2:18. “That’s what great teams do, and that’s why we’re not a great team yet.”
Pearl praised Williams and senior point guard Melvin Goins for playing “great on both ends of the floor,” but he said their teammates never matched that intensity.
“One of the challenges of playing a challenging schedule is night in and night out, this is what you put your team through,” Pearl said. “This was probably something I sensed a little bit the last couple of days. I think we’ll learn from it.
“Give Oakland credit. They made tough shots. Guys that don’t shoot the 3 ball by percentage shot it extremely well. I thought obviously we panicked some.”
Oakland senior center Keith Benson, a 6-foot-11 NBA prospect with an impressive overall game, scored 26 points on 9-for-16 shooting, 2-for-4 from 3-point range and 6-for-6 from the free-throw line. He also had 10 rebounds and two blocked shots despite leaving the floor for three minutes in the second half to get his left ankle treated in the locker room.
“He’d made one 3-pointer all year,” said Williams, who led the Vols with 18 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. “The scout said, ‘Watch the mid-range and in; watch out for right-hand and left-hand hooks.’ If he wanted to take those 3s, we were fine with that. But credit to him. He knocked them down.
“The guy showed why he’s a great player.”
UT’s top scorer, reigning Southeastern Conference player of the week Scotty Hopson, avoided Pearl’s ire despite finishing with just seven points on 1-of-7 field-goal shooting — he went 5-for-6 from the free-throw line.
“I want to defend Scotty, because I thought Scotty, even though he only made one basket, he did not get a ton of looks,” Pearl said. “They did a pretty good job on him, and I didn’t do a very good job of getting him more looks. And I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that he wasn’t ready or excited about playing.
“Scotty’s practiced terrific this week and really, really has been focused. From that standpoint, he’s disappointed because he didn’t play well, and he’s an easy target. He has been really focused. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for him, bouncing back.”
Besides, Pearl added, Hopson is just one player.
“I really don’t understand why we got so outplayed in the second half,” Pearl said. “I don’t have that one figured out. If I did, I would have made some better adjustments.”
The Vols played without junior forward Renaldo Woolridge and sophomore forward Jeronne Maymon. Woolridge worked out before the game on his recently sprained ankle, but he wasn’t cleared. Maymon, a transfer from Marquette and former top-100 recruit, is still awaiting official clearance from the university — but that’s believed to be a formality, and he’s expected to be declared eligible before Friday’s game at Charlotte.
Pearl said the team prepared for Oakland — as it did for the Pitt game — assuming that Maymon would be eligible. He learned Tuesday afternoon that Maymon had to sit out one more game.
“No excuses,” Goins said. “We weren’t the best team on our basketball court tonight. We got down, we panicked and we lost. It’s a long season, but like I said, every loss hurts.
“We’ve just got to bounce back, because we’ve got another really big game Friday.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesruckerCTFP or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.