Middle Tennessee game stats
Tennessee senior JaJuan Smith said he could feel something special was about to happen before the game, and so could his teammates.
Brimming with pent-up anger and embarrassment from Friday's lackluster 89-75 win over Prairie View A&M, the Vols took their frustrations out on Middle Tennessee State.
The result was a 109-40 victory over the Blue Raiders before a crowd of 18,592 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night. It was the second largest margin of victory in UT men's basketball history behind a 79-point win scored against Mexico in 1966.
"I asked our coaches before the game, 'Are we nervous, or just really, really focused, because they are quiet tonight,'" said UT coach Bruce Pearl, whose seventh-ranked team improved to 4-0. "It was unfortunate for Middle (Tennessee State) that we had played so uninspired against Prairie View."
It didn't help the Blue Raiders (1-3) that JaJuan Smith was hitting most every shot in sight from the time he came out of the tunnel for warm-ups.
"I was feeling it in the shoot-around, and my teammates saw that and told me I was going to have a big night," said JaJuan Smith, who scored 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting to eclipse his previous career-high of 26 points.
In fact, when JaJuan left the game for good with 9:50 remaining, he had outscored MTSU all by himself: the score was 88-28 in favor of the Vols.
"We've been mad and angry at ourselves because of the way we played the other night," JaJuan Smith said. "So we were itching to get back on the floor to prove ourselves."
The Summitt floor proved to be quite a proving ground, as UT senior All-American Chris Lofton re-established his 3-point touch and Ramar Smith broke out of his free-throw slump.
Lofton, who entered the night 3-of-17 beyond the 3-point arc this season, scored 17 points by hitting 6-of-9 shots from the floor and 5-of-8 of his 3-point attempts.
"I got a good open look at the beginning and I was happy to make the first one," said Lofton, who hit a 3-pointer less than two minutes into the game as the Vols raced to a 13-0 lead. "Yeah, it felt good tonight."
Ramar Smith couldn't contain his happiness after sinking the first two free throws he attempted with 5:06 left in the first half. The Vols' new $3 million scoreboard showed Ramar flashing a million-dollar smile after pointing up into the stands, having put his 0-for-12 free-throw performance against Prairie View behind him.
"The crowd was behind me, and I had to acknowledge the fans for that," Ramar Smith said. "I went back to doing it (free throw shooting) the old way. I had started trying that other style in Europe."
On this night it wouldn't have mattered what corner of the Earth Tennessee was playing basketball on; the Vols intensity and effort was evident from start to finish.
"At this point of the season, that's about as good as you can expect," said Pearl, who scored his 50th career win as UT's head coach. "I feel badly about the margin. We didn't press much. We just played really good drop-back defense. To force 29 turnovers made it hard for them to run their offense."
MTSU coach Kermit Davis knows there are plenty of UT opponents ahead who will have to deal with the same sort of thing.
"JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton, who I think is the best backcourt in college basketball, played like it tonight," said Davis, whose team lost 83-52 to UT last season. "That's a national championship contending team when they shoot like that.''
The Vols hit 37-of-57 (64.9 percent) from the floor, 16-of-28 beyond the 3-point arc (57.1 percent) and 19-of-28 (67.9 percent) from the free-throw line.
UT freshman center Brian Williams didn't play because of a hip pointer suffered in Sunday's practice.
"Hopefully, we can get him back for Friday,'' said Pearl, whose team tips off against West Virginia in the Legends Classic at 9 p.m. Friday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
The Vols will play Texas or New Mexico State at 4:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. Saturday night to complete the tournament.