MURFREESBORO - Tennessee couldn't have written a much better script Friday night.
UT men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl said he wanted his team to face some adversity, get better, and win while getting better.
Tennessee scored a 76-66 victory over Middle Tennessee State before a crowd of 11,802 at the Murphy Center - the second largest home crowd in the school's history.
Tyler Smith led the 14th-ranked Vols (3-0) with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against the Blue Raiders (2-1).
"The thing you saw tonight, Tyler had his moments, Bobby (Maze) closed it out and Wayne (Chism) did his things,'' Pearl said. "We ground it out. We did the things we had to do on the road.
"We didn't shoot ourselves out of it. We dominated the rebounds and that was important.''
So was freshman Scotty Hopson.
The lead had changed hands 10 times through the first 15 minutes with MTSU holding a 26-25 lead at the 4:54 mark before Pearl called timeout and Hopson kicked it into gear.
Chism scored in close for the 11th lead change before Hopson hit three consecutive long-range jumpers - two 3-pointers - as UT went on a 10-0 run.
The Vols held a 36-32 lead at the half, but the Blue Raiders came back to challenge.
Demetrius Green's jumper at the 17:27 mark tied the game at 38-38.
Smith responded, scoring quickly in transition to spark another 10-0 run that Cameron Tatum capped with a three-point play to make it 48-38 with 14:02 left.
MTSU couldn't get closer than six for the game's remainder, as Maze hit 5 of 6 free throws over the final 2 1/2 minutes.
"We put the ball in Bobby's hands, they couldn't press it out of him,'' Pearl said. "And then he went to the free throw line and made his free throws.''
Preseason Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Desmond Yates played only 1:20 of the first half after picking up his second foul, finishing with eight points in 19 minutes.
"We can take some positives out of it, but we weren't playing this game for respect,'' said Yates, whose team suffered a 109-40 loss to UT in Knoxville last season. "We were playing this game to win.''
UT overcame a 16-9 turnover disadvantage by out-rebounding MTSU 38-23 and hitting 20-of-26 free throws while the Blue Raiders connected on just 12 of 25.
Pearl said junior J.P. Prince (10 points) suffered a twisted ankle, but didn't elaborate on Prince's status for the next game.
UT returns to action Thursday against Siena (TV: ESPN2, noon) in the first round of the Old Spice Classic in the Milk House at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.