ATHENS, Ga. -- When Tennessee assistant Tony Jones talked to suspended coach Bruce Pearl for the final time on the telephone Monday night, Pearl’s instructions were clear.
“The game plan is in,” Pearl told UT’s interim coach. “Go execute it, chief.”
Tennessee’s players didn’t exactly execute the final play Jones drew up in Tuesday night’s game at Georgia, but it was good enough for the Volunteers (12-6, 2-2 SEC) to escape with a 59-57 victory over the Bulldogs (13-4, 2-2) in front of a stunned crowd of 10,523 fans at Stegeman Coliseum.
With the score tied at 57 with 27.8 seconds to play, Jones called a timeout. The shot clock was off after Tennessee guard Melvin Goins grabbed a loose rebound, so Jones decided the Vols would play for a final shot.
“We wanted our two playmakers to have the opportunity,” Jones said.
With about five seconds to go, Hopson passed the ball to Harris, who fired up an air ball from the corner. In a mad scramble in the final seconds, senior center Brian Williams reached over Georgia’s Chris Barnes and grabbed the rebound. Williams fired up a one-armed shot and made it just before the buzzer sounded.
Officials reviewed video to make sure Williams’ shot left his hand before the buzzer, and then the Volunteers ran off the court celebrating their second straight victory.
“Call it how you want to,” Williams said. “It might have been a foul, maybe not. I’m glad they didn’t call a foul on that.”
Georgia coach Mark Fox, whose team lost at home for the first time this season, wouldn’t say whether or not he believed Williams fouled Barnes before firing up the game-winner.
“In the final possession, you know they’re going to take the last shot,” Fox said. “The shot clock is off. As we’ve been taught to do, [we] defend without fouling, force a miss, block out and rebound. I think we did everything, including block out, but we just didn’t secure the rebound.”
The first four games of SEC play have been quite a ride for the Vols, who are now halfway through Pearl’s eight-game suspension for breaking recruiting rules and then lying about it to NCAA investigators.
Under punishment handed down by SEC commissioner Mike Slive, Pearl can return to Tennessee’s bench for Saturday’s nonconference game at No. 8 Connecticut. Pearl will then be suspended for four more SEC games, before returning to his team for good at No. 12 Kentucky on Feb. 8.
Thanks to Williams and a controversial no-call on Tuesday night, the Volunteers are in much better position than even they probably imagined they would be.
After losing their first two SEC games at Arkansas and home against Florida, UT was in danger of being blown off the floor against Vanderbilt at home on Saturday. But after trailing the Commodores by 17 points in the first half, the Vols rallied for a 67-64 victory.
Then Tennessee found a way to beat Georgia.
“I just think the kids have shown resiliency through these four games,” Jones said. “Against Arkansas, we had a chance to put the game in overtime, but didn’t make the shot. It was about the same situation against Florida. I think the players garnered some confidence coming back from 17 points down against Vanderbilt.”
Jones, who recruited many of the Vol players, has become a steadying force on the bench. Jones said he talked to Pearl late Monday night, after the Volunteers arrived in Athens.
The day before games, Jones said he spends six to seven hours working with Pearl to install a game plan. In the past, Jones said he would only be intimately involved in game planning if he scouted the upcoming opponent.
“Obviously, it’s tough,” Jones said. “I thought my opportunity as a head coach would come at a mid-major school and I’d feel my way into it. Not at an SEC school, after being thrown into the fire. But I’ve been preparing for this my whole career and I worked under one of the best.”
Jones also had to change the way he interacts with Tennessee’s players.
“I told them before the first game that I’d been their big brother, but now I’m more like their father,” Jones said. “I told them I was going to have to make some tough decisions.”
One of Jones’ tough decisions involved moving Williams out of the starting lineup. Williams started 14 of the first 15 games, but Jones and Pearl thought they’d get more production out of senior center John Fields. Jones also wanted Williams playing off the bench because he was prone to early foul trouble.
“The credit goes to Brian,” Jones said. “When we made the decision to go to John, he was good with it. He understands what his role is coming off the bench with the second unit.”
In his third game off the bench, the 6-foot-10 Bronx native played 21 big minutes against Georgia. He helped hold Bulldogs star Trey Thompkins to 13 points on 4-for-13 shooting. Williams also scored 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including the game-winner.
“Brian got a rebound and made a flat-out great play,” Harris said. “I think coming off the bench is a lot better for him. He comes off out with a lot more fight.”