NEW ORLEANS, JAN. 1 -- They left brokenhearted and tearful again, unable to stop an opponent when it was absolutely necessary. This time it was Tennessee, down by 16 at halftime, that came back to make Virginia miserable.

Tony Thompson, with 31 seconds left, propelled himself up and over the pile for the one-yard touchdown dive that gave Tennessee a 23-22 victory tonight over a numbed Virginia team in the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome.

For all but those 31 seconds of what would have been the school's grandest bowl triumph, the Cavaliers (8-4) led.

Sometimes Virginia looked much the superior team, especially when rolling to a 16-0 halftime lead. But in the second half, Shawn Moore couldn't complete any of eight passes he attempted, perhaps because the dislocated thumb he suffered against Maryland in late November wouldn't allow him.

Whatever the case, Virginia had to settle for 43- and 44-yard field goals by Jake McInerney after intermission.

One came with 7:34 left to extend the lead to 19-10. But Andy Kelly's 15-yard touchdown pass to Carl Pickens pulled the Southeastern Conference banner-bearing Volunteers (9-2-2) to 19-17.

McInerney was good again with 2:31 left, making it 22-17 and forcing Tennessee to win with a touchdown, not a field goal.

But just as Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia Tech had discovered before them, the Volunteers would find Virginia's defense soft when it mattered most.

Thompson, who had run seven yards to get the Volunteers to 16-10 early in the fourth, was on the bench much of the winning 79-yard drive, evidently tired after 24 carries and 150 yards' worth of rushing. But Tennessee didn't miss a beat with backup Greg Amsler running and catching.

Kelly also spread the ball around to tight end Von Reeves and Alvin Harper, whose 13-yard reception took Tennessee to the 4.

Amsler rumbled three yards to the 1 on first down, and Thompson came back in to finish business with his 25th carry -- the touchdown plunge. Early in the evidently inevitable drive, safety Keith McMeans nearly intercepted a pass but couldn't hold on.

Virginia got the ball with 25 seconds left and sent backup quarterback Matt Blundin in for Moore. Blundin didn't fare any better; his first pass was batted down at the line, he was sacked on second down, and intercepted on third down to end the game.

Asked to rank this comeback with others during his tenure as coach with Pitt and Tennessee, Johnny Majors said, "I don't think I've had a better one in the 23 years I've coached or whatever it is."

For Virginia, it might have been the most bitter of four defeats, three of which came after the Cavaliers led by at least two touchdowns.

The big surprise the first half was the play of their defense. Tennessee, in four possessions, had one fumble, one 12-yard punt and two interceptions.

Virginia had already led 6-0 -- with a failed point-after attempt that came home to roost -- on fullback Gary Steele's 10-yard run.

The 13-yard punt left Virginia in position for McInerney's first field goal, a 22-yarder that made it 9-0.

And an interception in the end zone by safety Tyrone Lewis after McMeans had made a great play to tip the ball stopped another Tennessee drive.

The Cavaliers took the ensuing possession 80 yards, using up seven minutes with 15 plays. It was clear Shawn Moore couldn't throw deep because he couldn't even reach Herman Moore and Johnnie Wilson, open for potential touchdowns. In fact Herman Moore (only two catches) failed to catch a touchdown pass for the first time in 10 games.

But this drive mixed great running from Terry Kirby, Nikki Fisher and Shawn Moore -- who combined for most of Virginia's 296 rushing yards -- a timely pass or two and a recovered fumble. Kirby, on the option pitch, ran one yard for the touchdown that made it 16-0 four minutes before intermission.

"Three turnovers at halftime against a good team like that, you're lucky you're not down more than 16," Majors said.

"I was pretty darned upset at halftime. We were shoddy-looking and everybody contributed, coaches included."

Majors blasted his team for not covering kicks, for overpursuing Moore, Kriby and Fisher on running plays and for committing silly penalties.

Tennessee didn't dent Virginia's lead substantially until Thompson finished a 94-yard drive with the seven-yard touchdown run that made it 16-10 two minutes into the fourth quarter.

That drive hurt Virginia doubly because the Cavaliers had put together an impressive run-only drive that seemed certain to produce at least a field goal. Instead, Moore was forced to throw after a holding penalty and lobbed a pass that Tennessee cornerback Floyd Miley gladly intercepted at his 6.

"That interception, where we could have had another field goal, was a big one," Virginia Coach George Welsh said.

That's what the Cavaliers were left with to start the new year, the same kind of questions that haunted them at the end of last year.

Why did Welsh go with Moore if he couldn't throw?

"He threw the ball well in practice," the coach said.

"I don't know if it bothered him or if it was a question of him not being under pressure {in practice}. He only practiced one week. . . . He gave us a lot of other things though {76 rushing yards on 11 carries}, so we made the right choice."

Moore said he could feel "the weakness in my thumb," but didn't want to blame the loss on that. "It was frustrating," he said. "It took away from doing some things we ordinarily do."

The worst part for Virginia may have been that the Cavaliers got all the breaks and still couldn't win.

A questionable roughing-the-kicker call against Tennessee gave Virginia another possession, which ended in McInerney's second field goal of the night, the one that put the Cavaliers ahead 19-10. The drive should have ended two plays earlier, but the officials missed a clear fumble by Fisher on the first play after the penalty.

Tennessee was also penalized for having 12 defenders on the field, which followed Moore's 22-yard scramble and put McInerney in position for the kick that made it 22-17.

And early in what turned out to be Tennessee's winning drive, McMeans had a sure interception sail through his hands. "We couldn't make it," Welsh said of the play, "and you only get so many chances."

That also summed up Virginia's season, in which the Cavaliers found themselves confronted with several wonderful opportunities they were unable to seize.