Vols: 'We won this for him'
Steven Pearl walked off the court at Madison Square Garden with a huge grin and a mammoth trophy wrapped in his hands, just moments after a touching embrace with his father.
"It was emotional," said the Tennessee senior forward, who also happens to be the son of Vols coach Bruce Pearl.
Sure, it was sweet to knock off Villanova on Friday night in New York to win the Preseason NIT crown after three consecutive years of coming up short in the championship game of one of these early-season tourneys.
But that wasn't why the hug in which the pair whispered “I love you” to one another was so gratifying.
"With everything going on off the court, it feels so good to win this for my pops," the younger Pearl said.
Pearl's had to watch his father get crushed nationally by just about everyone outside of Knoxville in the midst of an investigation in which Pearl admitted lying to the NCAA.
"It hasn't been easy," said Steven Pearl, who also had to deal with his parents going through a divorce a few years back. "Everything's so public, and everyone knows your business. It sucks."
"It's hard watching people bashing my dad. He admitted he lied and made a mistake," he added. "But I've got to stay positive and can't feel sorry for myself or i'll get me on the bench."
While Bruce Pearl attempted to deflect the attention away from his own situation, his players were forthcoming about their motivation. Winning for their coach was certainly a factor as the Vols pulled the 78-68 upset over the No. 6 team in the nation.
"We have no problem with people saying this is for Bruce," Tennessee freshman Tobias Harris said after the victory. "But this was about more than that."
"We won this for him," added Vols junior Scotty Hopson, who finished with 18 points and won the Most Valuable Player award. "We want to help get the heat off Bruce."
This was also about Pearl once again getting his players to give more effort than those in the other jerseys.
I saw it last year when the Vols — down four players after the gun incident that ultimately cost former star player Tyler Smith his spot on the team — pulled the improbable victory in Knoxville against No. 1 Kansas.
But that one was all about emotion.
There seemed to be no way this Vols team — one in which the younger Pearl and third-string point guard Skylar McBee wound up logging a total of 35 minutes — could handle the Big East co-favorites.
But Tennessee didn't back down and held Jay Wright's explosive guard trio of Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns to 7-of-30 shooting and a total of 25 points — more than 20 below their season average.
Melvin Goins was primarily responsible for Fisher, the guy who went for 105 on the playground this past offseason, being held 102 points shy of that well-publicized output.
"Coach told us they were going to come out and make it a street fight," Stokes said.
Pearl and the Vols don't lose street fights.
"When people count us out, it just fuels the fire," Hopson said.
The last seven minutes were on par with a four-alarm blaze as the Vols went on a run to put the game away after 'Nova cut it to 56-55.
Everyone did their part.
Hopson knocked down a jumper, Harris had a dunk and Cameron Tatum made a three-pointer to extend the lead to 63-55.
After a trio of 'Nova foul shots, McBee — who hit the game-winner last year against Kansas — nailed a trifecta, then it was Pearl who chased down a loose ball for what may have been the play of the game.
"You could tell they were playing for Bruce — and that they like playing for Bruce," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
And while Pearl will continue to be the storyline to any success or failures for the foreseeable future, he'll do what his players do best: fight against it.
"Let the attention go to the kids,” he said. "We didn't win the game because of what w've been through.”
"We don't want people to talk about our basketball program," added the son. "We want them to talk about basketball."
Or at the very least, about both.