STARKVILLE, Miss. - Tennessee took over the top spot in the SEC, but not before Mississippi State threw a scare into them.
The No. 7 Vols (19-2, 6-1 SEC) withstood the Bulldogs' furious rally to score a 76-71 victory before a loud and rowdy crowd of 10,150 at Humphrey Coliseum Saturday night.
Chris Lofton led UT with 20 points, but his defensive play against Jamont Gordon in the final seconds was as big as any basket Lofton hit.
The Bulldogs (14-7, 5-2) had pulled to within 74-71 after trailing by as many as 17 in the second half when Gordon came off a pick and squared up to attempt a potential game-tying 3-pointer with five seconds left.
"It was a switch, and I just happened to be the one there on him,'' said Lofton, who's three inches shorter than Gordon. "I was just trying to contest the shot and put a hand up in his face.''
Jordan Howell pulled down Gordon's missed shot and sealed the win with two free throws.
"My seniors are who I want to point out,'' UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell really stepped up big for us. I think that experience was a real factor in this road win.''
No doubt. JaJuan Smith scored 15 points himself and outplayed Gordon throughout most of the game.
Smith spearheaded the defensive effort against the multi-talented Gordon, who scorched UT for 25 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in last year's game.
Gordon finished Saturday's game with his season average of 17 points, but through the first 33 minutes he had five points on 1-of-7 shooting.
The game took a turn with 7:02 remaining when Gordon hit a pair of free throws to cut UT's lead to 62-47.
Duke Crews hit a shot in the lane to re-establish the Vols' biggest lead of the game at 17 points, but Mississippi State was already in attack mode.
The Bulldogs took advantage of Tennessee's foul trouble - Tyler Smith played only 15 minutes and 10 Vols saw double-digit playing minutes - and went on a run.
Mississippi State scored on its next seven possessions. The crowd grew louder with each basket: four consecutive 3-pointers, a Jarvis Varnado dunk, and two more 3-pointers that cut the Vols lead to 73-67 with 2:12 left.
A Gordon free throw made it 73-68 with 1:58 remaining, and when Barry Stewart (21 points) hit a 3-pointer from the corner, UT's lead was down to 73-71 with 39.2 seconds left.
Wayne Chism missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw situation with 34.3 seconds left, but Mississippi State squandered its opportunity to tie or go ahead when freshman Riley Benock was called for traveling with 17.2 on the clock.
Howell split a pair of free throws to give the Vols a 74-71 lead before Gordon missed the 3-pointer with Lofton in his face.
"I just felt like it was a struggle all night long with our foul trouble,'' Pearl said. "Tyler gets six shots and plays 15 minutes … when one of your best players is watching most of the game, to have a lead like we did was pretty special.''
So too was Tennessee's rebounding effort. Despite being out-sized, the Vols held a 42-32 advantage on the glass at the end of the night.
"It was a team effort,'' Pearl said. "We don't have a dominant rebounder. That rebounding was a key to the game.''
Chism led the way with six rebounds while JaJuan Smith, Duke Crews and Brian Williams each had five.
The Vols held a 36-27 lead at the half thanks to hot perimeter shooting that saw them hit 8-of-16 from 3-point range.
Mississippi State raced out to an 8-2 lead before UT warmed up. A JaJuan Smith transition layup triggered a 13-2 run that gave the Vols a 16-11 lead.
The Bulldogs regained the lead briefly when Stewart hit a 3-pointer to make it 19-18 at the 8:59 mark.
But then Crews hit a hook shot, Ramar Smith scored on a spectacular reverse layup and Lofton buried a 3-pointer to make it 25-19, and UT led the rest of the half.
The Vols return to action Tuesday at home against two-time defending national champion Florida (18-4, 5-2). Game time is 9 p.m. (TV: ESPN).
Childress Does Not Make Trip: Tennessee junior forward Ryan Childress did not make the trip on account of illness.
Childress, who has been out of UT's nine-man rotation the past two games, has missed the past two practices with flu-like symptoms.