KNOXVILLE -- Three close losses didn't signal the end for the University of Tennessee men's basketball team any more than Thursday's one-point escape over Belmont corrected them.
The 19th-ranked Volunteers (8-3) had issues before and after they escaped against the Bruins, and that's not lost on anyone inside the program.
Coach Bruce Pearl and his players were more relieved than satisfied Thursday night. And they certainly didn't sugarcoat the situation heading into their two-day Christmas break.
"You might have been wondering where I've been. Believe me, that was not a happy locker room from a standpoint of I want them coming back right and ready," Pearl said after making media wait longer than usual following the 66-65 win over the Bruins.
"I want them to go home and let their families see more of a man than a boy, and serve rather than be served, but enjoy a couple a couple of days off," Pearl added. "But get ready to come back and make a decision -- 'Do you want to act like the team that was picked fourth in the [SEC] East?' Because teams that get picked fourth in the East don't go to the NCAA tournament. They don't.
"Or, do you want to try to do something about it?"
The Vols only narrowly avoided their first four-game losing streak of the Pearl era by holding off Belmont's late charge -- something they couldn't do when squandering late opportunities in close losses to Oakland, Charlotte and Southern California.
Pearl doesn't want his Vols panning for fool's gold after one close win, though.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Pearl said. "Obviously this hasn't been a very good stretch for us. But a less talented team with a little less character and toughness doesn't win this game tonight.
"I've got a bunch of guys that can play better. They've got a lot to think about when they go home for the holidays."
Even Scotty Hopson couldn't get much Pearl praise after the game, and the sophomore guard scored a game-high 19 points, including UT's final nine points in the final four minutes -- including all four in the final minute, all of which overcame deficits.
Pearl said Hopson's turnover number was still way too high, and his star's consistency still left much to be desired, especially if the Vols want to win as big as they do.
Asked what Thursday night meant for Hopson, Pearl said simply, "Depends on what he does when he comes back."
The players, including Hopson, said they understood and agreed with Pearl's assessment.
"Not taking anything away from Belmont, but that was a one-point win, and obviously we feel like we should have kept that double-digit lead," Hopson said. "We need to understand that we need to do a lot better defensively and executing on the offensive end if we're going to be a great team.
"Coach Pearl's been doing this 18, 19 years. He knows a championship team when he sees one. We've got to listen to him and go out and do things right."
Hopson said Pearl's postgame speech "made it clear that we're not anywhere near where we need to go and where we want to be at.
"There's still a lot more work to be done," Hopson added.
Senior point guard Melvin Goins said he hopes the team will come back from Christmas and be ready to attack Tennessee-Martin on Dec. 29 with a "fresh start and new mindset and new hunger, and a willingness to get better and play together."
"Clearly, I'm not the happiest about my performance [Thursday], first of all, and of the whole team," Goins said. "There's a lot more we can do. We're much more capable. The win was good at the end of the day. It's always good to win, but we've still got a lot of work to do.
"I'll be disappointed if we don't come back from the break hungry to get better."
Freshman forward Tobias Harris, rarely a young man of too many words, said the Vols are "not playing the kind of basketball we should be playing right now."
"I wasn't surprised that Coach Pearl be like that after the game. That's exactly how I feel," Harris said. "We won the game, but that's not the type of win we want to have. Just looking ahead for the future, and how much talent we have, we want to beat teams like that and have a secure lead the last five minutes of the game.
"We know how good we can be, but a lot of guys aren't playing the way they want to play right now. I think they know that, but they just have to continue to work hard and fix it. We're getting into the SEC pretty soon, and we need to be right and ready."
Contact Wes Rucker at email@example.com or 865-851-9739.
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