Audio slide shows
MEMPHIS — Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said he doesn’t know if the Vols are the best team in the country.
“But I told my players before the game, I know we’re 40 minutes away from being No. 1,” said Pearl, whose team will ascend to the top spot for the first time in school history when the top 25 polls come out Monday. “Tonight was a find-a-way-to-win night.’’
UT did just that, dethroning previously unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Memphis 66-62, ending what had been the nation’s longest homecourt win streak at 47.
The No. 2 Vols (25-2) pulled the plug on an electric-blue charged crowd of 18,389 at FedEx Forum in the final seconds.
Memphis native J.P. Prince scored all 13 of his points in the second half, including a pair of pressure-packed free throws out of a one-and-one foul shot situation with 8.8 seconds left that gave the Vols a 64-61 lead.
“That boy has been making those two free throws in the driveway in Memphis his whole life,” said Prince’s father, John, who is a former Tigers’ assistant coach.
Memphis (26-1) took possession after Prince’s second make and moved upcourt quickly. But before the Tigers could get a shot off, Ramar Smith took Pearl’s instruction to foul Derrick Rose with 4.5 seconds left.
Rose, who led Memphis with 23 points, made the first free throw before intentionally missing the second.
Tigers’ post Joey Dorsey tipped the ball out, but UT All-American Chris Lofton was waiting.
“We knew they liked to tip it back,” Lofton said. “I was just there to get it and seal it.”
Lofton was fouled immediately with 2.9 seconds left and calmly iced the game by hitting both ends of a one-and-one free throw situation for the final margin.
Tyler Smith led the Vols with 16 points, including back-to-back buckets after Memphis had gone up 61-58 on a Chris Douglas-Roberts (14 points) drive with 2:27 left.
Smith scored the go-ahead basket on a high-arcing turnaround in the lane.
“I pump-faked twice, thinking (Robert) Dozier would come off his man and try to block the shot, and then I could spoon-feed a teammate,” Smith said. “But he didn’t come over; I’d already been in the lane two seconds, so I had to shoot.”
The three areas that enabled the Vols to win the game — clutch free-throw shooting, rebounding and defense — were targeted by Pearl in the offseason and have been points of emphasis all season.
But not even Pearl could have anticipated the Vols out-rebounding Memphis 50-34 and limiting the Tigers to 39.7 percent shooting.
“We sat up in that hotel room today watching those ESPN guys talk about Dorsey and Dozier, saying Tennessee was weak inside,” said Chism, who outscored Dorsey 14-1 and out-rebounded him 7-6. “So me and Duke (Crews) and Brian (Williams) got together and said, ‘Do we want to keep going to games with people saying we’re weak inside but we’re saved by our guards?’”
The Vols’ big men let their play do the talking, outscoring Memphis 36-16 in the paint.
“We said early on, Joey (Dorsey) and Robert (Dozier) and our inside people really were going to have to fight like heck,” Tigers coach John Calipari said. “They tried, but they got outfought.”
Senior wing JaJuan Smith aided the cause, pulling down a game-high 10 rebounds and scoring nine points in the first half as UT withstood an early barrage of Memphis 3-pointers.
The Tigers held a 35-34 lead at the half on the strength of 8-of-20 shooting beyond the arc against an unorthodox man-to-man defense that took on the appearance of a zone.
Memphis cooled off in the second half, going 0-for-7 beyond the 3-point arc and struggled to penetrate against the Vols’ tight defense.
“I thought we had them at the end,” Calipari said. “They made plays and we didn’t, which is really unusual for us.”
The win marks the second time in the past three years UT has beat the final unbeaten team left in the regular season, having topped a 17-0 Florida team two years ago.
The Vols return to action at 9 p.m. Tuesday at Vanderbilt (23-4, 8-4). The Commodores are 17-0 at home this season.