No. 9 Tennessee 75, Middle Tennessee 54

Tyler Smith knew J.P. Prince was ready for a breakout game after

watching him hit jumpers during the shootaround.

Prince followed through by scoring a season-high 17 points

Friday night, and No. 9 Tennessee showed off its depth in beating

Middle Tennessee 75-54 in the first game of the Sun Belt Classic

doubleheader. It was a nice turnaround for the senior guard, who

hadn’t scored more than eight in a game this season and found

himself coming off the bench.

“It was great to see him come out and play with confidence,

play effectively at both ends of the floor,” Tennessee coach Bruce

Pearl said.

“I’d like to see him get on the boards some, but I was really

happy for J.P. He just hasn’t been as productive. It’s been talked

about a little bit, was written about a little bit. It was all fair

and right. We’ve been talking about it, and so he’ll feel better

about himself now.”

Prince didn’t grab a single rebound, but he proved he had found

his shooting stroke. He hit 6 of 8 from the floor, was 4 of 5 from

the foul line, blocked a shot and had a couple steals.

“He had a good workout this morning,” Smith said.

His play helped on a night when leading scorer Scotty Hopson was

held to one point, well under his 15.7 average coming in. He missed

all three of his shots.

Tyler Smith also sat out about the last 10 minutes after

twisting an ankle.

The Vols (7-1) hadn’t played since downing East Tennessee State

on Dec. 2, and the nine-day layoff led to some sloppy play. The

ugliest came when Wayne Chism clanked his one-handed dunk attempt

off the right rim in the second half. Bobby Maze added 12 points

for Tennessee, which shot 50 percent (27-of-54) for the game.

“It was a workmanlike game,” Pearl said.

Vanderbilt played Western Kentucky in the second game pitting

two Sun Belt teams against Tennessee’s two Southeastern Conference

members.

Middle Tennessee (3-6) lost its third straight overall and

eighth consecutive in the series. Desmond Yates led the Blue

Raiders with a game-high 26 points, and James Washington had

11.

Tennessee took the lead for good on Cameron Tatum’s 3-pointer

less than 3 minutes into the game. The Vols led 37-30 at halftime

and pushed it to as much as 22 in the second half, when Prince beat

the shot clock with a 3-pointer to make it 68-46 with 5:36

left.

Pearl credited the Vols’ press with wearing down Middle

Tennessee, even though the Blue Raiders only turned it over 12

times.

Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis denied the press affected his

team that much, instead pointing to four of his top six scorers

struggling.

“And I can only think of two bad shots,” Davis said.

Middle Tennessee led only once off Yates’ layup in the first

minute, and his layup moments later tied it at 4. But he was the

only player to score for the Blue Raiders until Washington hit a

3-pointer with 13:08 left.

By then, six different Vols had scored.

Yates hit five of his first six shots, and his 3-pointer with

14:19 remaining pulled the Blue Raiders within 13-11. He hit a

jumper midway through the half to make it 19-16, before Tennessee

scored seven straight points capped by a three-point play by Prince

to give the Vols’ their first double-digit lead.

That was part of a 15-4 spurt, with Maze’s 3 giving Tennessee

its biggest lead of the half at 34-20 with 4:19 left.

The Vols picked up some needless fouls, sending Washington to

the line. He made 4 of 5 shots, and Trevor Ottley’s bucket just

before halftime pulled the Blue Raiders within 37-30.

Middle Tennessee got a technical foul in the final minute for

trying to call a time-out when the Blue Raiders didn’t have

any.