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.