Melvin Goins added 19 points and Cameron Tatum hit a succession of big shots while scoring 14 points as the Volunteers (7-0) opened leads of as many as 21 points against the Panthers (10-1). Pitt needed a late flurry just to cut the final margin to single digits.
Brad Wanamaker scored 21 points, but Pitt still lost a non-conference game in the city for the first time in 58 games, or since a Jan. 2, 2005 loss to Bucknell.
The SEC-Big East Invitational matchup was played at the new Consol Energy Center rather than Pitt’s on-campus Petersen Events Center, and it certainly wasn’t a home-court advantage for the Panthers. They hadn’t played a team ranked this high in Pittsburgh, outside of Big East play, since a 66-49 loss to then-No. 11 North Carolina in December 1995.
Pitt shot 42 free throws to Tennessee’s 30, but the disparity made no difference as the Panthers couldn’t match the Volunteers’ size and quickness, especially on the defensive end.
Pitt came in as the nation’s No. 1 rebounding team, averaging 16.7 rebounds per game more than their opponents, only to be outrebounded 34-32 as Tobias Harris had seven.
The teams are similar in size, makeup and a shared ability to play physically at both ends of the court — but with one difference. Tennessee tends to play more ranked non-conference opponents, and the Vols’ confidence level in playing such games showed up early.
In the last two seasons, Tennessee has beaten four teams in the Top 5 at the time — No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 Pitt and No. 5 Ohio State. Coach Bruce Pearl is 7-7 against Top 5 teams, the only Tennessee coach to be .500 or better against such highly ranked teams.
With Hopson hitting an NBA-length 3-pointer, a baseline jumper and a close-in jumper, Tennessee took leads of 12-6 and 14-9, then ran off seven consecutive points highlighted by Tatum’s 3-pointer to take a 21-11 lead with 12 minutes left in the first half.
The Panthers, not accustomed to being pushed around like this at home, never did make a strong push for the lead after Hopson had 16 points by halftime on 6-of-8 shooting. He was 10 of 13 overall, going 3 for 3 from 3-point range.
Pitt fans, including the normally raucous student body known as the Oakland Zoo, grew eerily quiet for long stretches — especially during a four-minute period in which Pearl had all reserves on the court yet the Vols lost nothing off their lead.
Pitt trailed by as many as 14 in the first half and never got closer eight in the second half. Gilbert Brown’s dunk for Pitt with 14:44 remaining made it 47-38 but, after Pearl called a timeout, Hopson quickly scored five points on the next two possessions and the Vols led 52-38.
Tatum later stretched the lead to 20 points at 59-39 on a 3-pointer from the wing and, as Pitt called a timeout, turned and smiled, holding up three fingers on each hand while looking toward a section of Pitt fans.
Later, Hopson did a midcourt strut after a soaring dunk gave him 25 points, matching his career high, and pushing the Vols’ lead back to 16 at 64-48. Hopson twice previously had scored 25.
Gilbert Brown and Ashton Gibbs each scored 15 points, but Pitt’s erratic foul shooting — 25 of 42 — hurt its comeback chances. Tennessee went 22 of 30 from the line, including Goins’ 10 of 12.
Gibbs was 4 of 13 as Pitt shot 40.7 percent (22 of 54).