The Vols (7-1) led 50-39 at intermission, then simply imploded. After going 4 for 8 from 3-point range in the first half, they went 0 for 10 in the second. After going 12 for 12 from the foul line in the first half, they went 10 for 19 in the second. Defense - the winning edge in previous tight games - also failed them this time. The Vols allowed the Golden Grizzlies (6-5) to outscore them 50-32 over the game's final 20 minutes.
Although Tennessee's players insisted all week that they would not suffer a letdown on the heels of Saturday's emotional upset of No. 3 Pitt, that appeared to be precisely what happened.
"This was a combination of running into a good basketball team and not being able to handle success, despite our best efforts to get our team excited about playing," Vol coach Bruce Pearl said. "One of the challenges of playing such a challenging schedule night in and night out is what you put your team through. That is clearly something I could have assessed better the last couple of days."
The Vols' lack of excitement was obvious as Oakland jumped to a 7-2 lead in the game's opening 90 seconds. Down 31-29 with seven minutes left to the break, Tennessee finally woke up long enough to make a 14-2 run that produced a 43-33 margin.
The Vols extended their 50-39 intermission lead to 13 points (61-48) with 16 minutes left, then fell asleep again. Oakland made a 14-3 rally that narrowed the gap to 64-62 with 11 minutes left.
Keith Benson, Oakland's superb 6-11 center, limped to the bench with a minor ankle injury at this point, giving Tennessee a temporary reprieve. With him out, the Vols promptly used a 10-4 spurt to go up 74-66 with 7:56 to play.
Once Benson returned to the lineup, however, Tennessee's offense vanished. The Vols went six minutes without a basket, during which time they were outscored 15-2 and fell behind 81-76.
A Melvin Goins steal and drive whittled the deficit to 81-78, then the teams swapped free throws. Oakland's Larry Wright delivered the dagger at this point - a 3 from the key that gave the Grizzlies an 85-79 lead with 37 seconds left.
Brian Williams led the Vols with 18 points and 13 rebounds. Goins added 18 points, 6 assists and 4 steals. Tobias Harris chipped in 16 points and Cameron Tatum 13. Scotty Hopson, coming off a career-high 27-point effort vs. Pitt, made just 1 of 7 field-goal tries and finished with 7 points.
"Scotty only made one basket but he did not get a ton of looks," Pearl said. "They did a good job on him, and I didn’t do a good job of getting him more looks.
"I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that he wasn’t ready or excited to play; Scotty has practiced tremendously this week. He’s really been focused. I know he’s disappointed because he didn’t play well, and he’s an easy target. But he was really focused."
Benson led Oakland with 26 points and 10 rebounds. Wright chipped in 19 points and 6 assists but committed 7 turnovers. Will Hudson added 17 points and 9 rebounds.
Although Tennessee's offense produced just eight points in the game's final 7:56, it was the defense that lost this game. After allowing their first seven opponents to make just 36.8 percent of their shots, the Vols allowed Oakland to shoot a sizzling 53.6 percent. They also sent the visitors to the foul line 19 times after intermission, leading to 15 Grizzlies' points.
"“We did a very poor job of guarding tonight," Pearl said. "Our identity did not serve us well. This is one of the worst performances we’ve had from our bench in a long time. Our bench got outplayed, and I just did not anticipate that."
Benson scored 20 of his 26 points in the first half. With Tennessee concentrating on him after the break, Oakland guards began beating the Big Orange off the dribble.
“I didn’t think we had enough energy," Pearl said. "If you looked at Melvin Goins and Brian Williams, those two guys had great energy. Those two guys did extremely well on both ends of the floor. But we did not have enough guys who brought that kind of energy."