Scotty Hopson may not have saved Christmas but he surely saved the day for Tennessee Thursday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Scapegoated by many fans for underachieving during the Vols' recent three-game losing streak, Hopson scored his team's last nine points - including the game-winning bucket with 5.7 seconds left - as the Big Orange nipped Belmont 66-65.
"Our great challenge is closing out close games, particularly on the offensive end," Vol coach Bruce Pearl said. "Who do you go to? I think Scotty answered that question; he is certainly capable."
After going 8 for 31 from the field and 1 for 10 from 3 during the three-game skid, Hopson seemed destined for another paltry performance after producing almost as many turnovers (3) as points (8) during the first 34 minutes Thursday evening.
With Tennessee leading just 50-48 inside the final 6:00, however, Pearl called a play for Hopson. Then he called another. And another. And another. Hopson came through time after time, producing 11 of Tennessee's final 16 points.
"Obviously, Scotty made great plays down the stretch," Pearl said. "We forced the ball to him and told him to get to the rim or get fouled."
In this case, Hopson did both.
Fouled on a drive with 5:28 left, he drained two free throws to provide a 52-48 lead. Despite a layup by Steven Pearl and a 3-pointer by Tobias Harris, Belmont closed to 57-54. Hopson responded with a driving dunk on which he was fouled. The three-point play widened the gap to 60-54 with 3:50 remaining.
After a bucket by the Bruins, Hopson was fouled on another baseline drive. He drained both free throws, boosting the lead to 62-56 with 2:45 to play. A Belmont 3-pointer, a Hopson turnover and a couple of Bruin foul shots narrowed the gap to 62-61, however. After Harris missed two field-goal tries for Tennessee, Belmont went up 63-62 on a layup with 49 seconds left.
Fouled on yet another drive, Hopson sank two free throws to put Tennessee up 64-63 with 38 seconds remaining. Belmont answered with another layup, however, and led 65-64 with 18.1 seconds left.
Everyone in Thompson-Boling Arena knew Tennessee would give the ball to Hopson for the Vols' final shot, including the Bruins. But they still couldn't stop him. He scored on a driving layup with 5.7 seconds remaining. When the visitors missed a hurried 3-point try at the buzzer, Tennessee had the monkey off its back and Scotty Hopson had the critics off his back.
"Knowing we was in a slump, I took it upon myself to get back in the game and start making plays for this basketball team so we could ultimately be successful," the 6-7 junior said. "I think I did that tonight."
The Bruins slip to 9-3. Thanks to Hopson's late-game heroics, the 19th-ranked Vols improve to 8-3.
"I wanted to get back to being in the attack mode that I hadn't been in the last few games, get back to sticking to my strengths and doing things that I hadn't been doing," he said. "I did that tonight, and it was successful for me."
Hopson finished with a game-high 19 points, 11 of those coming in the final 5:28. Though booed after missing that first free-throw attempt, he hit eight in a row thereafter. Harris chipped in 17 points for the Vols, sinking 8 of 10 from the foul line. All told, Tennessee shot 37 free throws (making 22) to Belmont's 10 (making 7).
"Tobias Harris and Scotty were 16 for 19 from the foul line because we took that ball to the basket," Pearl noted. "They (Bruins) fouled us a lot. They fouled us a lot because they couldn't keep us in front of them. Those two guys really stepped up at the free-throw line."
The Vols needed every one of those free throws, too, after squandering a 35-23 halftime lead.
Given how poorly Hopson played in the previous 3 1/2 games, Pearl was asked how big the strong finish on Thursday might be for the junior guard.
The coach's reply was short and sweet:
"It depends on what he does when he comes back."