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'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."

Whatever the method, Coach Red Face has made Thompson-Boling the toughest place in the country for top-ranked teams to visit. If your team is good, you don't want to go there.

Kansas found that out in a classic circle-the-wagons game Jan. 10. That was a Big Game Bruce Special, with his best player (Tyler Smith) in the process of being kicked off the team and three others (Brian Williams, Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum) all suspended after a pot-and-guns-in-the-rental-car fiasco on New Year's Eve. The Volunteers clinched that game on a serendipitous 3-pointer with 36 seconds left by walk-on Skylar McBee, cementing his spot in Tennessee hoops lore.

This time around, the Volunteers iced the upset with a 3 from nearly the same exact spot on the floor and nearly the same exact time on the clock. This time it was delivered by Kentuckian Scotty Hopson, who was winless in three tries as a collegian against the Wildcats until Saturday.

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.

The bragging rights were nearly gagging rights for the Vols after they squandered a 19-point lead. But credit Kentucky with a gritty comeback under adverse circumstances.

The Cats played a 9 p.m. game Thursday night, then had to turn around for a road contest at noon on Saturday. It helped that the team flew all of 33 minutes from Lexington to Knoxville, but Kentucky looked flat and flustered in falling behind 18-4 right out of the gate.

"They came after us and we were not ready for it," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

Kentucky also made an unwise fashion statement, with the entire team (Calipari included) wearing camouflage hats into Thompson-Boling for their Friday practice. The Cats didn't learn from history, after Miami wore camo to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl and wound up being upset by Penn State.

"I guess they're supposed to be the Army coming in here today," Chism said.

Yet after Kentucky retreated early, it did not surrender. With Wall holstering his errant jumper and charging into the lane, Cousins dunking everything he could get his hands on and sophomore Darius Miller scoring seven key points, the Cats tied the game at 65 with 2:06 left. The fact they erased all of a 19-point deficit in just 11 minutes and 45 seconds says something about their guts -- and their talent.

But one stat says something about their most glaring weakness: 2-for-22 shooting from 3-point range. Over its past four games, Kentucky has made just 12 of 73 shots (16.4 percent) from outside the arc.

Any opposing coach that doesn't zone the Cats from now until the offseason should be fired. Pearl sure wasn't going to be that stupid, employing a zone despite being primarily a man-to-man team.

"We don't play a zone," Pearl said. "That wasn't a great matchup [zone]. We were pretty good. Zone clearly slows them down."

The zone was huge, plus six key points by J.P. Prince (who had a game-high 20) and the key 3 from Hopson. That was the 9-0 run in the final two minutes that iced the game and sparked another upset celebration in Thompson-Boling.

Big Game Bruce had done it again.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.