The Vols' slim hopes of victory were further hampered by the ejection of JaJuan Smith with 12 ½ minutes to play. Smith sailed through the air in an attempt to stop a breakaway layup by Tar Heel star Tyler Hansbrough. When Hansbrough hit the floor awkwardly, UNC coach Roy Williams raced onto the court to display some Dale Brown-caliber histrionics. Officials promptly ruled the foul “flagrant” and ordered Smith removed from the game.
Smith had just nailed three 3-pointers during a 13-4 spurt that narrowed the deficit from 22 points (66-44) to 13 (70-57). TV replays showed Smith clearly fouled Hansbrough but did not seem to suggest the contact was excessive or flagrant. Vol coach Bruce Pearl confirmed as much on his post-game radio show.
“There's an SEC rule that I'm not supposed to comment on officiating but I'm going to break it and deal with the consequences because I feel like I have to defend JaJuan,” Pearl said.
After noting that hard fouls are “to be looked at very closely to protect the players” this year, the Vol coach noted that there was “a lot of contact” on the foul in question. Still, Pearl felt it did not qualify as “excessive contact,” which is cause for ejection.
“I disagree with the call,” he added. “I disagree with it. And to take JaJuan Smith out of the game at that point, obviously hurt our basketball team.”
Hansbrough finished with a game-high 27 points, hitting 11 of 15 shots from the foul line. Freshman Brandan Wright, a 6-foot-9 Nashville native, added 19 points for North Carolina, now 4-1.
Chris Lofton, limited to one first-half point, scored 17 after intermission. He and Smith led Tennessee with 18 each. Wayne Chism contributed 12 points, hitting 3 of 4 shots from 3-point range. Dane Bradshaw and Duke Crews chipped in 10 each.
Down 56-35 at halftime, Tennessee appeared on the verge of a blowout loss. The Vols fought back, however, and narrowed the gap to 12 (98-86) in the closing minutes.
“I thought we showed some character,” Pearl said. “I thought our kids played awfully hard and, at times, well. I thought we got better tonight. Probably the best thing that happened ... I thought we came together as a team tonight.”
After shooting just 31 percent and committing eight turnovers in the first half, Tennessee shot 44 percent and committed just three turnovers in the second half. The Vols made just 16 of 32 free throws, however, and were dominated on the backboards 54-30 by the tall, talented Tar Heels.
Tennessee, now 4-2, visits Louisiana-Lafayette Monday night. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. EST.