By the time the Big Orange realized there was a competition taking place, it was 15 points down with 10 minutes left in the first half. Although the Vols clawed back to take a brief second-half lead, they expended so much energy climbing out of the early hole that they wilted late and suffered a 69-63 loss that deals a serious blow to their NCAA Tournament hopes.
"You can't spot a good team that kind of a lead in a game of that magnitude," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl said. "The players understood what was at stake; the coaches understood what was at stake but it didn't show up for the first 10 minutes of the game."
Georgia, now 4-2 in SEC road games, improves to 18-8 overall and 7-5 in SEC play. Despite a career-best 32-point effort from Scotty Hopson, Tennessee slips to 16-11 and 6-6.
Both teams entered the game on the NCAA bubble but only one team played that way.
"Georgia started the game like they were playing for their NCAA Tournament lives; we played like we were already in the field," Pearl said, clearly disgusted by his team's lethargic start.
Hopson was nothing short of spectacular, hitting 12 of 19 shots as he topped his previous career high (27 points on Dec. 11 at Pittsburgh) by five points. Pearl conceded that Hopson had "a tremendous offensive game" but added that "he also was one of our guys that started slowly."
Even so, Hopson and Tobias Harris (18 points) combined to make 19 of Tennessee's 25 field goals and score 50 of Tennessee's 63 points. The rest of the cast managed just six field goals (in 24 attempts) and 13 points.
"We play better when everybody contributes," Pearl said. "Right now Scotty and Tobias are looking aggressive, and the rest of them are tentative."
After shooting just 28.1 percent in the first half, Tennessee shot 57.1 percent in the second. While the Vols' offense improved dramatically as the game wore on, their defense did not. Georgia shot 51.9 percent in the first half, 50 percent in the second half and 51.1 percent for the game. The Dawgs are the first team since Vanderbilt way back on Jan. 15 to shoot 50 percent against Tennessee.
"We played behind the post," Pearl said. "It's as simple as that. They beat us over the top one time. The rest of the time we played behind him and they ducked in and scored over the top of us."
Tennessee limited 6-10, 245-pound Georgia forward Trey Thompkins to 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting but was scorched by 6-8, 264-pound post Jeremy Price, who muscled in 8 of 9 shots and scored 20 points. Price played just nine minutes due to foul trouble when the Vols won the earlier meeting 59-57 in Athens. This time he was the winning edge.
"He's a big, physical, strong kid," said Harris, who guarded Price for much of the evening. "I tried a lot to get around him but it was hard. That's something I need to work on."
Harris might have done a better job defending Price if he hadn't been helping out on Thompkins so much.
"We knew he was a tough matchup, so we were really focused on Thompkins - denying him the ball and watching his help," Harris said. "Price got a lot of easy buckets down inside there."
The Vols may have shown up physically for the 1:05 tipoff but they clearly were not mentally in the game. They took bad shot after bad shot during a 7 minute, 44-second stretch which featured 0-for-10 shooting and two turnovers. Outscored 17-0 between the 16:47 and 9:03 mark, they saw a 7-5 lead turn into a 7-22 deficit.
Pearl was both bewildered and discouraged by his team's shocking lack of fire and focus, noting: "I've got way more tolerance for an aggressive mistake than I do with not coming out with a sense of urgency, not competing, not realizing you're in a fight until you've already got the crap kicked out of you."
Once Tennessee trailed 7-22 Hopson put the team on his back, scoring 11 of the Vols' next 18 points as they closed to 25-33 at halftime. He then scored Tennessee's first nine points of the second half, almost single-handedly trimming the deficit to 34-37 with 15 minutes to play.
Tennessee went on top for the first time since 7-5 when Melvin Goins stole the ball from Georgia's Gerald Robinson and dunked for a 45-43 lead. Goins got a technical foul for hanging on the rim, however, and Georgia converted both free throws to tie the score.
Although the technical slowed the momentum Tennessee seemed to be building, Pearl downplayed the call's significance.
"I really think the start of the game was hard to overcome," he said. "Melvin hanging on the rim was probably a good call. Mel made a great play but he didn't handle it real well."
Shortly after the technical foul call Harris scored a three-point play to put Tennessee up 48-45. Georgia answered with a 14-4 spurt, however, that gave the visitors a 59-52 lead with 3:37 remaining. The Vols closed to 61-63 on a driving dunk by Hopson with 42 seconds left but Georgia's Dustin Ware hit two free throws with 38.6 seconds left and two more with 27.5 seconds left to seal the win.
Ultimately, that seven-minute, 44-second lapse that saw the Vols outscored 17-0 in the first half proved decisive.
"I thought we took terrible shots," Pearl grumbled. "I thought we settled for a lot of bad shots, and it didn't look like they were interested in making them. They weren't good shots."
The Vols try again Tuesday, visiting Vanderbilt for an 8 p.m. CST tipoff.