ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands -- Tennessee's reputation has been built on high-flying offense, but the Vols (No. 11 ESPN/USA Today, No. 10 AP) flexed some defensive muscle Sunday night in the semifinals of the Paradise Jam.
Tyler Smith scored 14 points, including a pair of free throws with 13.7 seconds left, and the Volunteers held on to beat pesky DePaul 57-53.
"I'm going to give our defense credit tonight," said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose team led the SEC in scoring his first four years. "You win games with defense and rebounding."
Tennessee (4-0) came into the game averaging 114.5 points in its two previous wins, but found itself desperately trying to hang on against the heavy underdogs from the Big East.
The Blue Demons closed within 55-53 on Mac Koshwal's hook shot with 44.5 seconds left, but the Vols ran off nearly 30 seconds before Jeremiah Kelly finally fouled Smith away from the ball. The veteran forward made both ends of the 1-and-1, and Will Walker missed a 3-pointer at the other end with a few seconds left to seal it.
The Volunteers will play No. 7 Purdue for the title Monday night.
"In the last two minutes, Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism showed their experience, and they acted like seniors and played like seniors," DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright said. "We tried to slow them down a little more with our offense than our defense. We tried to grind it a little bit and made our possessions longer."
It certainly showed.
The Volunteers thumped UNC Asheville 124-49 last week and routed East Carolina 105-66 two days earlier, but couldn't get into the same offensive flow against the Blue Demons' annoying man-to-man, ball-pressure defense.
They shot only 37.3 percent from the field (22 of 59) and were 3 of 12 from beyond the 3-point arc, while turning the ball over 15 times.
Koshwal and Walker each had 14 points for DePaul, while Eric Wallace added 10.
Tennessee led 33-24 at halftime on the strength of nine points from freshman guard Skylar McBee, but the Blue Demons rallied in the second half behind Walker, who scored 10 of his 14 points in a 2 1/2-minute stretch to pull them within 43-41 with 12:22 left.
Mario Stula added two free throws a few minutes later to give DePaul a 48-47 lead.
Smith made the first of two foul shots with 4:37 left to push Tennessee ahead, and Chism's 3-pointer off an assist from Melvin Goins made it 53-49 moments later.
Chism added a jumper with just under 3 minutes left before Wallace and Koshwal got DePaul within 55-53 with under a minute to go -- setting the stage for Smith's clutch free throws.
"I was happy to be in a situation like that," he said. "Coach Pearl trusts me with the ball in my hands, and that was a very big win for us because it was the first time this season we didn't really hit shots from the outside."