'Big Game Bruce' strikes again
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Score another one for the giant killer.
Big Game Bruce Pearl has won a lot of games in five seasons as the coach at Tennessee -- but more specifically, he has taken down a lot of high-flying teams as the coach at Tennessee. Playing his Volunteers is hazardous to your ranking.
After the Vols lost a 19-point lead against Kentucky, then regrouped to close the game on a 9-0 run for a 74-65 victory, Pearl is now 17-12 against ranked opponents. Six of those wins have come against teams ranked sixth or higher: No. 6 Texas in 2005; No. 2 Florida in 2006; No. 5 Florida in 2007; No. 1 Memphis in 2008; and this year alone, Tennessee has beaten No. 1 Kansas and now the No. 2 Wildcats. In Pearl's tenure, four top-five opponents have played at Thompson-Boling Arena. All four have lost.Those are some serious skins to put on the wall. Big Game Bruce challenged his team pregame to at least delay Kentucky's first Southeastern Conference title in five years. "It's not going to be a great year if you don't beat Kentucky," Pearl said. "Now you've got a chance for it to be a great year." It can be a great year if Tennessee can transfer its Thompson-Boling Arena magic to neutral courts in the tournaments to come. To do that, Pearl must bring his giant-killer mojo with him into March. Big Game Bruce has proven to be the SEC basketball version of Houston Nutt -- at his best in the underdog role, uncomfortable as a big dog. Which is how you can lose as a favorite to USC by 22 and to Georgia by 15, yet still upset Kansas and Kentucky in the same season.
So it seems fair to ask: Is Pearl a different coach when it's big-game time?"He just turns red," explained Tennessee forward Wayne Chism. "He still coaches the same. His intensity and yelling goes up, but that's it."
Tennessee's One-Two Punch
The Volunteers are the first team since the 2001-02 season to beat the No. 1 and No. 2 team in the same season.
It happened twice that season:
• Oklahoma beat No. 2 Maryland on Dec. 21, 2001 and beat No. 1 Kansas on March 10, 2002.
• Maryland beat No. 2 Illinois on Nov. 27, 2001 and beat No. 1 Duke on Feb. 17, 2002.-- ESPN Stats & Information
With Tennessee clinging to a two-point lead, Hopson flashed to the perimeter off a Williams screen and cashed a 3 over late-closing DeMarcus Cousins with 38 seconds remaining. The Hopkinsville, Ky., product low-keyed the moment to the media postgame, but teammates goaded him into a celebratory John Wall dance in the Tennessee locker room.
And when he gets back home to Hopkinsville during the summer?"He's fittin' to brag," opined Chism.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.