- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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STARKVILLE, Miss. -- This past summer, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury pulled Bruce Pearl aside and casually planted the kiss of death on his Tennessee counterpart.
"I told him he has a chance to compete for a national championship," Stansbury recounted in his customary hoarse voice. "That doesn't mean he's going to win it. But his team is good enough to compete for one. They absolutely have all the pieces."
Stansbury saw nothing Saturday night that would change his mind after his 25th-ranked Bulldogs came roaring back from a 17-point, second-half deficit only to see the No. 8-ranked Vols steady themselves just enough to squeeze out a 76-71 victory at Humphrey Coliseum.
"They just keep coming at you with players, good players," said Mississippi State guard Jamont Gordon, who went "Chris Lofton" on the Vols and almost single-handedly shot the Bulldogs to an improbable comeback win.
"You look up, and there's different guys coming into the game, different faces and different looks," Gordon said. "It's like that the whole game. They just keep sending them in. That's the difference in us and them.
"That's the difference in them and most teams."
Here's something else that was a little different about the Vols, at least different from the free-wheeling, up-and-down, shoot-it-up style college basketball has become accustomed to under Pearl.
On this night, the Vols proved they could win when there wasn't much offensive flow. They did it with just seven fast-break points, three steals (one off their season low) and with seemingly everybody in foul trouble.
A tractor pull is how Stansbury referred to it, and at times, it wasn't even that pretty.
"You have to win different ways," Pearl said. "We certainly have a system and style of play. We love to run, and we like to press. But we can grind. We can grind when we have to. You've got to grind on the road. You're not going to come in here and run a team like Mississippi State out.
"There were times when we played our best basketball. There were times when we were very efficient."
There also have been times when the Vols were too flashy for their own good. They love the alley-oops, no-look passes and reverse dunks and occasionally have botched things by trying to be too cute (see JaJuan Smith's ill-advised pass off the backboard to Tyler Smith the other night against Alabama that sabotaged an easy breakaway).
But just when you think this bunch is maybe too caught up in the glare of the "SportsCenter" moment to make a serious Final Four run, the Vols adapt, improvise and man up in Final Four-esque fashion.
How else do you explain Tennessee's outrebounding Mississippi State by a 42-32 margin, the most the bigger, more physical Bulldogs have been outrebounded by all season?
How else do you explain the Bulldogs' being held to eight offensive rebounds, one off their season low?
How else do you explain the Vols' grabbing 18 offensive rebounds, many of those leading to key second-chance points?
How else do you explain the Vols' weathering killer foul trouble and their catalyst, Tyler Smith, playing just 15 minutes?
"It's a sign that we're trying to become a great team," JaJuan Smith said. "We're a good team right now trying to become a great team. Winning these kind of games and doing it when you have to change up some things you're used to doing is good for us. We had to adapt and were switching things. Guys were playing different positions because of foul trouble, and guys stepped up and did things they haven't done all season."
The Vols had 10 players who played double-digit minutes, as four players finished the game with four fouls.
"Defense and rebounding win championships, especially on the road. Scoring a lot of points is nice, but that's not how you always get to where we want to go," said Lofton, who continued his torrid shooting spree by going 4-for-9 from 3-point range and finished with 20 points.
In his past five games, Lofton is 25-of-51 from 3-point range after struggling from long distance the first two months of the season.
In fact, Lofton is the main reason Stansbury isn't buying the theory that the Vols are somehow vulnerable if you can get them into a half-court game.
"They may be better running down the floor and shooting it, but they're very good in half-court offense because Lofton is involved so much," Stansbury said. "They go to him at the end of shot clocks every time, and then you've got JaJuan Smith sitting over there who's just about as dangerous. He's dangerous in a different way."
For Pearl, it's all about the comfort of having three senior guards. And the third senior guard, Jordan Howell, was clutch at the free-throw line Saturday. He made 3 of 4 in the final 15.4 seconds after the Bulldogs clawed all the way back within two points after trailing 64-47 with 6:27 to play. They made seven of their last nine 3-pointers -- Barry Stewart accounted for four of those, Gordon the other three.
Down 73-71, the Bulldogs (14-7, 5-2 SEC) had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead after Wayne Chism missed the front end of a one-and-one. But freshman guard Riley Benock was whistled for traveling with 17.2 seconds left.
Gordon also had a chance to tie it with five seconds left, but his 3-pointer kicked off the back of the rim.
"We hung in there, and that's experience," Pearl said. "We understood the importance of this game. We understood that Mississippi State doesn't lose here at home in conference play and that this could be a separator for us."
How much of a separator remains to be seen.
But it's not a stretch to think the Vols (19-2, 6-1 SEC) might get to their highly anticipated nonconference showdown with No. 1-ranked Memphis on Feb. 23 unscathed the rest of the way. They will be favored in their next five games -- home against Florida (Feb. 5), at LSU (Feb. 9), home against Arkansas (Feb. 13), at Georgia (Feb. 16) and home against Auburn (Feb. 20).
Nobody in orange has even started to look that far down the schedule.
Then again, the more this team keeps winning, the more you wonder where this ride will end.
"We just have that feeling that we're going to win the game, no matter where we are and what the other team is doing," Lofton said.
And apparently, it makes no difference whether it's the hoops version of a tractor pull or the Indy 500.
Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com.