Patience is a virtue, and as it turns out, a pretty good strategy against the Tennessee men's basketball team.
The Vols, who will hold the No. 1 ranking until the polls are released this afternoon, scored a 63-60 victory on Sunday to run their home-court win streak to 31 games.
UT (26-3, 12-2 SEC) also tied a school record with its 26th win and clinched a share of the SEC East and a first-round bye in the SEC tournament, but not before the Wildcats (16-11, 10-4) proved their mettle.
Kentucky clawed back from a 15-point deficit despite missing its best player, freshman Patrick Patterson, who's out for the season with a stress fracture in his ankle.
A Chris Lofton drive put the Vols up 63-57 with 1:10 remaining before Kentucky's Derrick Jasper answered with a 3-pointer with 59.8 seconds left to make it a one-possession game at 63-60.
That was still the score when Ramar Smith clunked the front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation with 14.9 seconds remaining, giving the Wildcats a final chance.
Kentucky's Joe Crawford was crowded in the corner when his potential game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds left went off the rim. Perry Stevenson pulled down one of his game-high 14 rebounds, but the Wildcats were unable to get off another shot before the final horn.
Tennessee, led by Tyler Smith's 15 points and Lofton's 14, had taken an early 20-5 lead, sending the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 21,628 into early jubilation.
But the loudest cheers of the day from that point on were reserved for UT legend Ernie Grunfeld, who had his jersey retired at halftime.
Kentucky's Ramel Bradley, who scored a game-high 17 points, repeatedly broke UT's press, enabling his team to slow the pace and settle into its half-court game.
The Wildcats ran the 35-second shot clock down before attempting shots. Patiently, Kentucky crept back into contention, pulling to 34-27 at the half.
Kentucky opened the second half with an 8-2 run, narrowing UT's edge to 36-35.
There were 15 ties or lead changes during the final 13:54 after Kentucky took its first lead of the game at 42-41 on a Crawford three-point play.
It wasn't until Crawford's 3-point miss in the final seconds that UT players, coaches and fans could exhale.
"There was a lot of pressure on this Tennessee basketball team to hold serve because of the kind of season we've had and the road we've traveled,'' UT coach Bruce Pearl said.
Pearl started the week in West Tennessee by leading the Vols to their first No. 1 ranking ever with a 66-62 win at previously unbeaten and No. 1 Memphis. On Tuesday, in Nashville, Vanderbilt toppled UT 72-69. Finally, back home in East Tennessee, Pearl equaled his record against Kentucky at 3-3.
"To win a championship, it's not easy,'' Pearl said, "and it's not always pretty.''
Billy Gillespie saw to that with a coaching exhibition that showed why Kentucky paid him $2.3 million to leave Texas A&M and take over its tradition-rich program.
The Vols struggled to execute Pearl's plans to counter.
"They were backing off, building a wall; they're out there denying Chris and helping tremendously off a lot of people,'' Pearl said. "With the exception of JaJuan (Smith) and Chris, we have a lot of guys that are not confident from the perimeter. Will teams back off us more? Perhaps.''
The Vols failed to hit any of the three 3-pointers they attempted in the second half, and if not for 9-of-12 free-throw shooting and strong interior play from Tyler Smith, could have easily met a different ending.
UT didn't trail after Ramar Smith's baseline drive and dunk made it 58-57 with 4:17 remaining, but the drama was far from over.
Confetti burst from the UT student section when Lofton drove the lane, splitting three Kentucky defenders en route to a high-arcing layup off the glass that gave the Vols a 63-57 lead with 1:10 remaining.
Jasper's 3-pointer cut the lead in half before UT failed in its half-court set. JaJuan Smith stayed scoreless in the second half when Kentucky's A.J. Stewart blocked his drive and subsequent shot attempt with 28.6 seconds left.
Jasper missed a 3-point attempt on the return trip down, however, and Ramar Smith was fouled and sent to the line for the one-and-one he missed with 14.9 seconds left, setting in motion the dramatic finish.
An exhausted Tyler Smith admitted relief the game was over and was ready to pass the No. 1 ranking on to another team - for now.
"When you're No. 1, you see it and hear it everywhere,'' he said. "I think losing that spot will put the fire back in us to try to get it again.''
The Vols return to play at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Florida (21-8, 8-6, TV: WVLT). UT can clinch the SEC East outright and a share of the SEC regular-season crown with a win over the Gators.
Prince At Point: Pearl put sophomore transfer J.P. Prince at point guard for the first time this season, entering Prince in with the first round of substitutions in place of Jordan Howell.
Prince, a point guard at Arizona, had two assists and one turnover, playing point guard for roughly three of his 16 minutes.
Howell, who has been mired in a month-long shooting slump, played five minutes, all at point guard. Howell missed the only shot he attempted, from beyond the 3-point arc, and did not have any assists or turnovers.
Pearl said starting point guard Ramar Smith (six assists, one turnover, six points, five rebounds, 32 minutes) played well, but the Vols still need "to continue to get better play at the position.''