There have been times this season, it seems, when Tennessee's players haven't heard coach Bruce Pearl's message.
Scotty Hopson listened to the fourth-year coach's pleas and delivered in grand fashion Wednesday night as the Vols sustained their NCAA Tournament hopes with an 81-76 win in what Pearl had termed a must-have contest.
"We have encouraged Scotty Hopson to be more aggressive, and he has been," said Pearl, who steered each of his first three UT squads into the NCAA's postseason. "He knows we cannot win unless he plays like this."
This, however, was better than Hopson had ever played in his previous 26 games in a Volunteers uniform. The heralded prospect from Hopkinsville, Ky., turned in a career-high 21 points to lead all scorers and also logged a career-high tying 31 minutes.
"Me stepping up is really going to contribute to us having more success. We need that," said the 6-foot-7 forward who helped UT halt a two-game losing skid. "If I don't step up, as you can see we really haven't had that many wins this season, so I'm just doing what I can to contribute and we win.
"Just be consistent with my play, offensively and defensively. If I keep doing that, we'll be fine."
Hopson credited an evolving maturity for consecutive quality performances and greater on-the-court confidence. Hopson also led the Vols (17-10, 8-5 SEC) with 14 points in Saturday's loss at Kentucky.
"I think I'm maturing every time I step on the court," he said. "Game in and game out, practice, just playing and I can keep getting better."
More than maturity is at work for Hopson, according to backcourt mate Bobby Maze, who notched 14 points -- his best night in six weeks -- in the win.
"Scotty is the type of player, not just off the drive, draw, dish but he likes to have the ball in his hands to create his own shot. He was able to do that," Maze said. "Coach has a lot of confidence in him, and Scotty has been putting in a lot of work in the gym and it paid off. (Wednesday) I could just tell he had more confidence in his shot."
Now, Hopson wants the Vols to carry that confidence onto the road as they prepare for their final three regular season games and seek to bolster postseason credentials.
"I think the attitude for us was a must-win situation," Hopson said. "We still have to close out, close out hard. Go to Florida and get a win, South Carolina and win the Alabama game here. We still have to close out hard to improve our chances of making the tournament."
Maze keeps faith
Bobby Maze had grown weary of letting down his teammates. The junior college signee even personally shouldered the blame for a couple of the Vols' losses.
Yet, Maze praised his coaches and teammates for not losing their faith in him. On Wednesday, he rewarded them with arguably his strongest performance in a Tennessee uniform. Maze scored 14 points, gathered four rebounds, added an assist and a steal in 26 minutes in the Vols' season-saving win.
"Coach has got a lot of confidence in me, and the team does. Any time the team has got confidence in you, it's easier to make those shots," said Maze, who connected on 6 of 10 field goal attempts. "Last couple of games the guys were putting me in positions to make shots and I just didn't knock them down. So I've been working on my game and just trying to make those open shots."
It was both an open shot and a contest one on back-to-back possessions when Maze shined brightest against the Bulldogs. He drained a 3-pointer and followed with a bucket just after Mississippi State had whittled its deficit to five points. Maze's five-point mini-splurge gave UT its first double-digit lead, 64-54, and restored momentum to the Vols' bench.
Further, it helped restore Maze's faith in himself.
"Just believing in myself and not letting people outside of my team and my coach get to my head. Like I say, this is a different level of basketball," said Maze, referencing the transition this season from junior college to the SEC. "A lot of times people want to know how I did it in JuCo, but this is a different team. I'm playing with tremendous players, and I'm a point guard. On that team I played on in JuCo, I was a one-man show. I could shoot it any time, and I could just make plays.
"On this team, I've got to get everybody involved and it's just a different team. I'm just able to accept the role. It's all on me, I haven't played the best of my game. I had to go back to do the things that I was doing earlier in the season to get back to that point I am now."
State coach Rick Stansbury cited Maze as one of the biggest keys for the Vols' victory.
"They had two players hurt us -- Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze," said the Bulldogs' veteran coach. "When their perimeter guys have big games, it helps their team so much.
Maze and Hopson both had good nights, and they were the difference in the game."
Now, Maze says the Vols must close their ranks down the stretch and remain focused on finding a way to an SEC Eastern Division title.
"Stay together. Stick with what coach asks us to do," Maze said of the team's mindset. "He gets us well-prepared for the games and the best thing is, we needed this win for the confidence. We're going to play in a hostile environment at Florida (on Sunday), and I'm just taking one game at a time. So we need to go down there and handle our business."
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