When the going got tough, Tennessee went to Tyler Smith to keep things going.
Smith scored a team-high 15 points and dished out four assists with no turnovers in leading the Vols to a 78-66 win over determined East Tennessee State on Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Buccaneers (4-4) gave the 11th-ranked Vols (6-1) a battle before UT closed out the game by going 6-of-6 from the free-throw line during the final minute.
“Did we trail?’’ Vols coach Bruce Pearl asked at the opening of his press conference. “That was a tough match-up. They spread us out and penetrated and pitched.
“If we finish around the basket better . . . the margin of victory is greater.’’
The Bucs proved scrappy in the paint, out-fighting Tennessee around the rim on many occasions. The Vols held a 34-32 edge in rebounds despite the obvious size disparity.
ETSU stayed within striking distance throughout the action before the announced crowd of 17,512, and trailed by a 42-39 count when Justin Tubbs drove to the basket for two of his game-high 22 points with 15:48 remaining.
The Vols answered with an 11-2 run and Smith did much of the work, once on a drive and other times with his ball distribution and defense.
Tennessee had 22 assists on its 28 field goals, showing patience against a packed-in Bucs defense.
“I’m just feeling the game, trying to take whatever comes to me and not force anything,’’ said Smith, second in the SEC in assist/turnover ratio. “A lot of times our guys are making the shots, so I’m just looking to find them and not turn it over.’’
McBee, a walk-on freshman, heated up during the pivotal 11-2 run, sinking two shots from beyond the 3-point arc to keep the Bucs at arm’s length.
A Tatum 3-pointer at the 10:05 mark gave the Vols a 61-49 lead, and ETSU didn’t draw closer than six points for the game’s remainder.
“We were able to manage the game and keep them at bay,’’ Pearl said. “It was a solid game. We weren’t playing to blow them out, we were playing to win because we respected them.’’
Point guard Bobby Maze, who had five assists and no turnovers, said Smith’s experience proved key down the stretch.
“That was a terrific basketball team with good guards who came out with a lot of intensity,’’ Maze said. “Tyler showed again he can get it done in a lot of ways, not just scoring but with his defense and intensity.
“His veteran skills really allow him to take over late in the games.’’
Pearl said the Vols will take off a few days for finals before returning to action at 7 p.m. on Dec. 11 at the Sommet Center in Nashville against Middle Tennessee State.
UT’s next home game in Thompson-Boling Arena is against Wyoming on Dec. 15.
Notebook: Pearl got his first technical of the season at the 1:03 mark of the first half for arguing a defensive foul picked up by Hopson. . . . Pearl said he felt Hopson had been fouled on more than one occasion on his drives to the basket. . . . Walk-on Steven Pearl did not dress for the game and was not on the team bench. Bruce Pearl said his son was taking care of “academic business.’’