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Tennessee got a taste of competition Friday night before spitting out an 80-63 win over the Temple Owls.
The runnin', gunnin' Vols of coach Bruce Pearl's first two seasons sputtered at times, and preseason All-American Chris Lofton was 0-for-5 from 3-point range en route to a 10-point effort.
But UT's vastly improved half-court defense and 23 forced turnovers turned the tide as the No. 7-ranked Vols won before the capacity crowd of 21,817 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Senior JaJuan Smith led the Vols with 15 points - all in the first half - while Ramar Smith scored 14 and Wayne Chism had 11.
"Yeah, I had 15 points,'' JaJuan Smith said, "but I'm more excited about my five steals.''
Indeed, most all of Pearl's post-game praise was for the defense, as Temple's Dionte Christmas and Mark Tyndale, the leading scorers in the Atlantic 10 Conference last season, were a combined 7-of-26 shooting for 23 points.
"You definitely can see some of the fruits of what our focus has been,'' Pearl said. "We have a long ways to go defensively, but I think you can see an improved defense effort, focus and physicality.
"We took a shot early, and the guys responded.''
Tennessee held a 39-24 lead at the half, but only after Temple punched the Vols in the mouth after winning the opening tip, jumping to an early 14-9 lead with an in-your-face style of play.
With the crowd growing uneasy, the Vols rallied. Sparked by a Wayne Chism tip-in at the 13:09 mark, Tennessee went on a 16-2 run over the next 4 1/2 minutes to go up 25-16 on a Tyler Smith transition layup.
"I came out after the first timeout and told Duke (Crews), this guy is killing me, and I have to go back at him,'' Chism said. "They (Temple) were pretty physical; they're from Philly, so they think they are hard guys. We had to show them we could play with them."
The Owls made just 1 of 10 shots during the Vols' pivotal first-half 16-2 run and turned the ball over seven times before Semaj Inge scored a bucket at the 6:30 mark. A Tyndale free throw followed, and Temple was trailing 25-19.
But the Vols staged yet another run. This time, it was JaJuan Smith setting the tone. JaJuan Smith had three steals and scored seven consecutive points during a 9-2 spurt that put UT up 34-21 on his 3-pointer from the corner with 5:02 left in the half.
Temple staged an 8-2 rally early in the second half to draw to 44-34 when Tyndale split a pair of free throws with 15:32 left.
But the Vols answered with an 11-0 run, going up 55-34 when Ramar Smith capped the scoring with a drive to the basket off a JaJuan Smith steal with 12:02 left.
The Owls drew no closer than 16 points for the remainder of the game.
"A lot of their scoring came off their defense,'' Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "I think they make you do some things in your offense you're not ready for. You can't simulate how hard they play on the defensive end.''
Pearl pointed out that Lofton was part of the defensive mix and suggested that might have affected his offensive output.
"Chris, Ramar, JaJuan, Josh Tabb and Jordan (Howell) put the clamps on them (Christmas and Tyndale)," Pearl said. "Chris expounded a lot of energy. His shot didn't look good, but I'm sure that's something that's not going to last."