Before earning its latest win, Tennessee traveled more than 3,000 miles, endured a three-hour practice and dragged at times during its fourth game in eight days.
With the benefit of a little more rest, the 11th-ranked Volunteers should look sharper Wednesday night against visiting East Tennessee State.
Tennessee (5-1) fell 73-72 to Purdue in the Paradise Jam’s title game in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 23, and coach Bruce Pearl didn’t wait long after arriving home to put the team through a grinding warmup ahead of Friday’s 86-69 victory over the College of Charleston.
“It’s the hardest I’ve ever practiced a team the day before a game,” Pearl said. “If we’d have lost the game tonight, I’d have blamed myself. I’m blaming myself now for tempting it. … We’re trying to develop a different level of physicality and intensity, and I absolutely wore us out.”
The Volunteers allowed Charleston to get within three midway through the second half before pulling away. After struggling in the final two games of the Paradise Jam, Scotty Hopson scored 21 points and hit all three attempts from 3-point range, boosting his team-leading average to 16.7 points.
“When you come home, the rim’s like an ocean,” Hopson said. “I felt great tonight.”
Tyler Smith added 18 points for a team-best fourth straight game in double figures.
“To play the way we play, you have to play with great passion and great intensity,” Pearl said. “I’m not coming in here tonight saying we didn’t because they didn’t. We didn’t because of the number of games we’ve played in a row, and the fact that I’ve probably worked them a little too hard. … I think this will serve us well in the long run.”
East Tennessee State (4-3) endured its own rough stretch with four games in nine days, including trips to Louisville and Arkansas.
However, the Buccaneers posted three straight victories after falling to the Cardinals to open that run Nov. 21. They followed up Friday’s 94-85 win over Arkansas by blowing out North Florida 82-56 in Sunday’s Atlantic Sun Conference opener.
Junior guard Tommy Hubbard led the way with 25 points, and senior guard Mike Smith added 14 off the bench in his second game since returning from a knee injury.
Smith was the team’s top returning scorer from last season’s NCAA tournament team, and East Tennessee State has also had to try to overcome the loss of their two top offensive threats, Kevin Tiggs and Courtney Pigram.
Hubbard has tried to make up for those losses by averaging 18.3 points and fellow junior guard Justin Tubbs is scoring 15.3 points.
The Buccaneers haven’t faced Tennessee since a 93-88 loss at Thompson-Boling Arena on Dec. 30, 2006.
The Volunteers, who will play their 350th game on their home court, are searching for their sixth straight win over East Tennessee State and lead the series 11-2.