CINCINNATI — Perhaps all Tennessee needed to play up to its lofty preseason expectations was a good tussle.
The 12th-ranked Vols certainly got that from Xavier in their 82-75 men’s basketball victory before a sold-out Cintas Arena crowd of 10,250 Saturday afternoon.
Sophomore transfer J.P. Prince scored a career-high 23 points in 20 minutes on 9-of-14 shooting, and Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism added 12 apiece for the Vols (11-1).
The Musketeers (8-3), favorites to win the Atlantic 10 Conference, had won 14 consecutive home games.
The tone was set for a physical battle eight seconds into the game when a loose ball off the opening tip led to a dog pile of gray and orange jerseys.
The Vols led the entire first half and trailed most of the second half before closing the game on a 13-2 run to silence the rowdy, beer-chugging crowd and win their sixth consecutive game.
“We became a much better basketball team tonight,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “This was a marquee win for us. Four weeks ago, we’d have gotten run out of here.’’
Pearl just about got run out of the arena himself after being whistled for a technical foul for standing outside the coaches’ box with 4:46 remaining.
Stanley Burrell, who scored a team-high 18 points for Xavier, hit both technical free throws to give the Musketeers a 71-67 lead.
Little did anyone outside of UT’s team huddle know Pearl’s technical was worth more than the two points it cost the Vols.
Xavier, which had gone a minute without a field goal prior to Pearl’s technical, didn’t score a field goal for the rest of the game, managing only four free throws.
UT’s Ramar Smith stole the inbounds pass after the technical free throws — accounting for one of his season-high four steals — and scored to cut the Musketeers’ lead to 71-69.
“I picked up a technical foul with four minutes to go, it’s not a good time to do that, but my players bailed me out,’’ Pearl said. “They really stepped it up. I didn’t have to do any motivating … JaJuan (Smith) took care of the motivating, and that’s what seniors do.’’
JaJuan Smith said the players merely fed off Pearl’s intensity.
“That technical foul got us going,’’ he said. “It was a deal where Coach couldn’t do anything about what had happened, so I brought the guys together and said, ‘we’ve got to have Coach’s back.’ ”
JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton combined to hit just 4 of 17 shots from the floor (1 of 9 beyond the 3-point arc), but the senior guards pulled down five rebounds apiece to split team-high honors.
Tyler Smith’s steal and lay-up at the 2:16 mark gave the Vols a 74-73 lead, and after another Ramar Smith steal, Tyler Smith tapped in a Lofton miss to make it 76-73 with 1:19 to go.
Xavier didn’t draw closer than three points for the game’s remainder. Tyler Smith and Jordan Howell each sank a pair of free throws in the final 33.9 seconds to seal the hard-fought win.
“I think tonight shows how we’ve grown,’’ Tyler Smith said. “Everyone is playing as hard as they can play.’’
Xavier coach Sean Miller, who had all week to prepare for the Vols, said the Musketters accomplished most of their goals.
“We defended the 3-point shot really well, they only made 5 of 20 (shots),’’ he said, “and our transition defense was really good.
“We had no answer for (Prince). He’s just really good off the dribble.’’
Prince, playing his third game since becoming eligible after transferring from Arizona last January, said the Vols had something to prove.
“We don’t want to be called soft or overrated,’’ Prince said. “This was a hostile road environment and we took their best shot. We just had to man up.’’
Tennessee’s next game is at 4 p.m. Dec. 29 in Seattle against No. 18 Gonzaga.