It just keeps getting better for Tyler Smith and Tennessee.
Tyler Smith scored 21 points, including the game-winner with 4.2 seconds left as UT extended its home-court win streak to 24 games with an 85-83 victory over Ole Miss on Wednesday night.
The No. 8-ranked Vols (13-1, 1-0 SEC) needed every ounce of energy that the sellout crowd of 21,846 at Thompson-Boling Arena supplied to derail the best start ever for No. 16 Ole Miss (13-1, 0-1).
“Without 21,000 in the building, we do not win this basketball game, I promise you,’’ said UT coach Bruce Pearl, who is 3-0 in SEC openers. “As it related to our conditioning, the crowd inspired us to play through that fatigue.’’
Smith was an inspiration all by himself; the sophomore transfer also pulled down six rebounds and had five assists.
“My first SEC game and I hit the game-winner in front of the home crowd,’’ said Smith, who was mobbed by his teammates on the court after the game. “It keeps getting better.’’
Ramar Smith, who had seven assists and two turnovers, said he wasn’t surprised to see Tyler Smith come through in the clutch.
“Tyler is an all-around player who can do it all,’’ Ramar Smith said. “He showed that tonight. He has a lot of moves. He was just too good for them.’’
Pearl said the final play was designed to get the ball to All-American Chris Lofton or Tyler Smith, who were set up on the same side of the floor.
Lofton received the ball, but passed up on the shot, choosing instead to get it to Smith, who was posting up in the lane.
With 4.2 seconds left and the score tied, the UT faithful held their collective breath as Tyler Smith released what proved to be the game-winner over 6-foot-8, 240-pound power forward Kenny Williams.
Even after the shot swished through, the Rebels had a chance, getting an outlet pass down court to freshman sensation Chris Warren, who had scored a game-high 24 points.
Alas, Warren’s 3-point attempt from approximately 35-feet bounded harmlessly off the backboard. It was Ole Miss’ sixth consecutive missed shot over the last two minutes against the Vols’ inspired defense.
While the Rebels lost the game, Ole Miss no doubt won respect, rebounding from a 72-60 deficit with 11:03 to play by holding the Vols without a field goal for a seven-minute stretch.
David Huertas’ 3-pointer gave the Rebels an 81-79 lead at the 2:36 mark, and 15 seconds later Eniel Polynice’s spinning drive made it 83-79, forcing Pearl to call timeout.
Wayne Chism got the call and sparked UT’s late rally with a strong drive to the basket to cut the Ole Miss lead to 83-81.
Following a Warren 3-point miss, the Vols went back inside, this time, to Tyler Smith.
He backed Williams down, despite giving up an inch and 25 pounds, to score and tie the game at 83-83 with 1:18 showing on the clock.
The Rebels came out of a timeout with an offensive flurry; Williams, Huertas and Dwayne Curtis took shots before Williams was fouled.
Williams missed the front-end of his one-and-one free-throw situation with 33.6 seconds left and JaJuan Smith, who finished with 21 points, grabbed his sixth rebound to set in motion the Vols’ last-second heroics.
Pearl made it clear the game was too close for his comfort.
“I told the team, this right here is why we’ll have a hard time beating the big, physical teams on our schedule,’’ Pearl said. “I did not think Ole Miss would physically dominate like they did.’’
The Rebels out-rebounded the Vols 44-39, scoring many of their points on second-chance baskets that came off 20 offensive rebounds.
UT overcame Ole Miss’ interior strength by hitting 32-of-68 shots from the floor (47.1 percent) and 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) of its 3-point attempts.
The first half was just as hard-fought with the Vols clinging to a 45-44 lead.
Tennessee returns to action at South Carolina at 8 p.m. Saturday.