NASHVILLE - The Sommet Center was Brian "Big Baby'' Williams' crib on Saturday night.
Tennessee's 6-foot-10, 270-pound freshman scored 16 and pulled down 14 rebounds to lead the No. 12 Vols to an 88-82 victory over Western Kentucky.
"How about Brian Williams?" said UT coach Bruce Pearl. "He was everything we thought he could be and then some."
Williams scored three consecutive baskets over the final three minutes after the Hilltoppers rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to pull to 79-78 with 3:28 left.
"Since last week, coach has been putting me back in the rotation in practice,'' Williams said. "I told my teammates whenever they get in trouble, get the ball to me in the middle.''
JaJuan Smith scored a team-high 19 points and had a key steal with 33 seconds remaining and the Vols (9-1) up 85-82. A Jordan Howell free throw ensued, and Tyler Smith added a pair for the final margin. Tyler Smith had 16 points thanks in large part to 10-of-13 shooting from the free throw line.
Courtney Lee led Western Kentucky (7-3) with 23 points and Tyrone Brazelton and Ty Rogers added 16 apiece.
A Sommet Center regular season record crowd of 18,701 was treated to a fast-paced, high-energy contest between the Sun Belt and SEC favorites. Half the crowd was clad in orange while Western Kentucky sold 4,000 tickets.
Any advantage the Vols might have had was cancelled by a large throng of Memphis fans who stayed after the Tigers' 65-41 win over Middle Tennessee State in the first game of the Sun Belt Classic.
UT held a 78-68 lead with 6:47 left on a Tyler Smith dunk, but the Hilltoppers went on a 10-1 run to make it 79-78 on a Steffphon Pettigrew basket with 3:28 remaining.
UT emerged from a closely contested first half with a 44-38 lead as sophomore transfer J.P. Prince scored all eight of his points in the first half. Prince, making his first appearance for the Vols, finished with a career-high seven rebounds.
"All of us were exciting for him," Pearl said. "He's been on the shelf for a while.
"I knew he would help us, I just didn't know how quickly. We're going to get a lot better with him in the rotation."
Both teams enjoyed 8-0 runs in the first half in a sign of things to come as both teams enjoyed success in the transition game.
The Vols broke out to an 18-9 lead when Ryan Childress capped their 8-0 run with a dunk.
The Hilltoppers answered with an 8-0 run of their own, with Lee scoring half the points on a dunk and a drive.
The Vols scored just one basket during a 7 1/2-minute stretch that saw them shoot 1-for-9 from the field late in the first half.
Tennessee, however, maintained its lead by forcing four Western Kentucky free throws and sinking 10 of 12 during that stretch.
The Vols return to action at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday against UNC Asheville at Thompson-Boling Arena, where they have the fifth-longest home court win streak in the nation at 22.
Honoring Duke: The Vols honored sophomore center Duke Crews with various messages written on their tennis shoes. Crews, who is eligible for a redshirt, was diagnosed with a heart condition that will sideline him indefinitely.