Tennessee's Scotty Hopson, left, drives against Mississippi State's Ravern Johnson (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE – Once again Tennessee found itself in a close game at home.
Once again the Volunteers couldn’t find a way to win.
Wendell Lewis slammed home the winning points off a pass from Dee Bost with 3.4 seconds left to give Mississippi State a 70-69 road win at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday.
It was UT’s seventh home loss this season, the highest mark since the 1994-95 season, when the Vols lost eight times. It was also the ninth time this season in which the Vols had a game come down to the final possession.
“Another disappointing Saturday,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “I felt good going into the game about the possibility of building some momentum.”
But a loss to a Mississippi State team that was coming off a home loss to lowly LSU sufficiently killed any hope UT had for building steam after last Tuesday’s win at Vanderbilt.
Tobias Harris, who scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds, gave UT (17-12, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) the lead on wide-open dunk off an inbounds pass with 11.1 seconds left.
With the Bulldogs (15-13, 7-7) out of timeouts, Bost raced down the floor and found Lewis cutting along the baseline. Lewis was fouled on his dunk, missed the ensuing free throw and Scotty Hopson’s desperation heave from halfcourt was wide.
Pearl neither hid his emotions with his team in the locker room after the game nor minced his words in his meeting with the media after the game.
“Upset, mad, disappointed,” Harris said of his coach. “And I would be, too, if I was him just because we’ve been so inconsistent. We lose to a team we should never have been down to, so he’s (ticked). (We’re the) same as Coach – (ticked).”
Said Pearl: “We are not getting good leadership from within the team,” he said. “We have some competitors (but) have no leaders.”
Pearl also bemoaned his team’s struggles in the halfcourt offense. Though the Vols outrebounded Mississippi State and held the Bulldogs to 40 percent shooting, UT shot just 36 percent (24 of 66) from the field and made just five of its 21 3-point attempts
The Vols went through consecutive stretches in the second half where they didn’t score for a stretch of 4:33 and followed that drought up with a span of 3:49 with no field goals and just three free throws.
“The team does not play well together offensively,” Pearl said. “If I don’t call a play and put them in the spots they’re supposed to be in, we have a hard time scoring when they’re making decisions on their own. We’re not playing well offensively and we haven’t all year.
“We slop through things. This is probably the worst shooting team I’ve had field goal percentage-wise. If I knew what to do, I would have been doing it.”
Said Hopson, who led UT with 22 points: “We’re not playing tough sometimes. We’re not being the aggressor (and) understanding that we need to take the ball to the rack.”
Harris doesn’t think it’s too late in the season to fix UT’s offensive ineptitude.
“I don’t think it’s (too) late at all,” he said. “With Coach, he can get anything done in a matter in time, so we just have trust in him and trust in the system. That’s what Coach (Pearl) preached to us in the locker room. That’s something we need to work on. We need to move the ball more, and we haven’t been doing it.
“I really don’t know. We’re not playing together, we’re not making open passes, we’re not looking for each and that sums it up right there, pretty much.”
Ravern Johnson led Mississippi State with 20 points, Bost had 14 points and 10 assists and Kodi Augustus had 15 points and 10 rebounds. Lewis, who filed in for star center Renardo Sidney in the second half, had eight rebounds and three blocks to go along with his seven points.
“This team is a great team,” Hopson said. “We’ve beaten great teams, so we know we can play great basketball. We just ain’t doing it.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...