To their credit, the competitors competed. Scotty Hopson hit 8 of 16 shots and scored a game-high 22 points. Tobias Harris added 16, the last two coming on a dunk that gave the Vols a short-lived 69-68 lead with 10 seconds left. Melvin Goins limited Mississippi State standout Dee Bost to 5-of-17 shooting and forced him to commit five turnovers.
Bost came through in the final seconds, however, slithering through Tennessee's defense and dishing to Wendell Lewis, who hit a game-winning layup with 3.4 seconds left. Slow-motion replays suggested Bost traveled before passing the ball but what should have been his sixth turnover instead proved to be his 10th assist. Of course, had the Vols played with more energy and focus the previous 39 minutes, the game would not have come down to a no-call in the final seconds.
Ravern Johnson scored 20 points, Kodi Augustus 15 and Bost 14 for Mississippi State, which improves to 15-13 overall and 7-7 in SEC play. With the loss, Tennessee slips to 17-12 and 7-7.
Even with their NCAA Tournament hopes hanging in the balance, the Vols suffered through some serious lulls - mental and physical - that doomed them to their seventh home loss of the season.
"I didn't think our energy or our passion was what it needed to be," Pearl grumbled. "We are not getting good leadership from within the team."
The Vols aren't getting good discipline from within the team, either. Leading 44-42 five minutes into the second half, Tennessee showed the poise of a middle-school team.
Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams squandered back-to-back possessions with turnovers. Tatum missed a 3-pointer nine seconds into the shot clock on the next possession, missed a short jumper and a putback try on the next one, then missed another 3-pointer nine seconds into the ensuing possession.
Whatever Tatum had must have been contagious because Harris misfired on a 3-point try seven seconds into the shot clock on Tennessee's next possession, then Josh Bone missed an 18-foot jumper nine seconds into the possession after that.
Pearl appeared dumbfounded as he stood along the sideline, his arms outstretched and his head shaking in disbelief.
No wonder. Those seven wasted possessions saw the Vols commit two turnovers, jack up four perimeter jumpers (three of them 3-pointers) and go 0 for 6 from the field. Instead of pulling away they saw their 44-42 lead become a 44-46 deficit.
"It was a 3-for-all on several possessions at one point in the second half," Pearl said afterward. "There were fans in the stands who were thinking, 'There's no way somebody's going to launch a 3. They just missed three or four in a row.' But that ball gets launched."
The 3-happy Vols wound up hitting a pitiful 23.8 percent (5 of 21) beyond the arc and a dismal 36.4 percent (24 of 66) overall.
Although Tennessee limited the visiting Bulldogs to 39.7-percent shooting, Pearl also was upset with his team's late-game defense. Mississippi State scored on five of its last six possessions, turning a 58-60 deficit into a 70-69 win.
"In spite of our struggles offensively," the coach said, "down the stretch the identity of our toughness and rebounding and defense was non-existent.... We could've controlled the outcome of that game if we'd defended those last few possessions."
Now that his Vols have dropped 12 of their last 22 games, the coach's reluctance to blame his players seems to be diminishing. He surmised that his team was "not screening, not cutting, not passing" on this night.
Even the team's two stars took some criticism. Pearl noted that "Scotty scored but there are a lot of things he needed to do in the game to help us win that he didn't do," and that "Tobias came close to a double-double but probably missed some shots that he can make."
Everyone felt some of the coach's wrath except the home crowd. A turnout of 20,777 showed up in full voice to support a team whose energy has not matched the crowd's far too many times this season. Pearl conceded as much.
"The energy of our crowd has been great but it has not inspired our players to elevate their games," the coach said. "Our players have not been elevated because of the home support. Maybe it is what is what it is and they are who they are."