Tyler Smith keys the Vols' win over a scrappy Ole Miss team
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Any questions about Mississippi being for real went out the window Wednesday night after the Rebels stared down Tennessee and took the Vols' best shot in a sold-out, ear-splitting Thompson-Boling Arena.
For much of the game, the Rebels were the more physical team and maybe even the tougher team.
But the No. 9 Vols -- looking very much like they had been there and done that -- were the better team when it counted.
And, oh yeah, they had Tyler Smith.
Smith, who is quickly establishing himself as this season's preeminent transfer of influence, backed Ole Miss' Kenny Williams into the paint twice in the final minute, 17 seconds, and scored on tough finishes to save the Vols in an 85-83 escape that was telling on a couple of fronts.
For starters, the versatile Smith adds a dimension to the Vols (13-1 overall, 1-0 SEC) that they simply didn't have a season ago. It's especially noticeable with Chris Lofton still not himself.
"That makes us dangerous, with him scoring like that," Tennessee senior guard JaJuan Smith said. "Tonight, Tyler showed all of his game from all areas 3-pointers, mid-range shots and layups. He had the defense off-balance, and that just makes the team better."
Tyler Smith finished with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting to go along with six rebounds and five assists. He also was 2-of-3 from 3-point range after zeroing in on his jumper during practice the past two weeks.
The Vols were playing for the first time since Dec. 29, a layoff that Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said cost them in their conditioning. But it seemed to only sharpen Tyler Smith's game.
"He's very, very difficult to guard off the bounce, and when he's making 3-pointers, come on," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said with one of those "What do you do?" shrugs. "You've seen him, come on. When he does that, it takes his game to a whole different level."
The same could be said of Tennessee's entire team when the game is hanging in the balance. The Vols, similar to their win at Xavier on Dec. 22, simply didn't panic Wednesday night.
After leading by as many as 12 points midway through the second half, they saw the Rebels scrap their way back into the game and take an 83-79 lead with 2:22 to play.
But it was all Tennessee from there, as the Vols steadied themselves and promptly extended their home winning streak to 24 games.
"If we can man up the whole 40 minutes like we do the last two minutes or the last four minutes like we did against Xavier and like we did tonight, the sky's the limit for this team," said Smith, whose sweet, left-handed game-winner off the glass came with 4.2 seconds to play. "We've just got to get the rebounds."
Something else we know about these Vols after this scare is that they are vulnerable inside. Granted, the Rebels and their collection of tight ends-turned-hoopsters have outrebounded every team they have faced this season. But physically, the Vols were out of their league.
It could have been worse, too. Ole Miss senior forward Jermey Parnell left the game early in the second half with a sprained ankle and never returned. Senior center Dwayne Curtis, who finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, was in foul trouble down the stretch and had to spend some key minutes on the bench.
"It's hard to beat people when they get 20 offensive rebounds," Pearl said. "I believe it's something we can fix. But I told the team, 'This right here is why we're going to have a hard time beating the big, physical teams on our schedule.'"
JaJuan Smith, who had 21 points and was 5-of-10 from 3-point range, was more blunt.
He said it's about "manning up" underneath.
"We've got to quit getting manhandled," he said.
Despite his club's grit, one thing a sweat-soaked Kennedy wasn't doing afterward was accepting any congratulations for the way his No. 15 Rebels (13-1, 0-1) went toe-to-toe with the Vols on the road before losing for the first time this season.
So what if it was the best start in school history?
"I know a lot of people are going to take a moral victory," said Kennedy, whose Rebels were picked to finish last in the SEC's Western Division. "We're way beyond that at Ole Miss. I know people don't want to believe that. But we're way beyond that.
"That group is crushed in there [in the locker room]. I've got grown men crying, and we're going to have to bounce back, because we came in here with the full expectation of winning this game."
They almost did, too.
Freshman point guard Chris Warren was undaunted in his SEC debut and finished with a game-high 24 points, his 14th straight game in double figures. Sophomore guard Eniel Polynice, whom Pearl called one of the SEC's most improved players, added 20 points and repeatedly sliced through the Vols' defense.
Even when Tennessee went on a couple of its patented runs -- the kind that typically knock teams out -- Ole Miss never blinked. After falling behind 72-60 with a little more than 11 minutes to play, the Rebels outscored the Vols 23-7 over the next nine minutes to put themselves in great shape to pull off the upset.
But the road-hardened and battled-tested Vols, who played just one game at home during the month of December, wouldn't let it happen.
"They came in here, and they wanted it and came after us, but I felt like we fought a little harder in those last three minutes," JaJuan Smith said.
"That's our time."
Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com.