NASHVILLE - Tennessee senior J.P. Prince said he had coach Bruce Pearl covered the whole time.
"Coach and I had a pre-game talk, and I told him not to worry about me, everything will be fine,'' said Prince, who entered Friday's game against Middle Tennessee State averaging 3.6 points. "I was in a little slump, the first time that had happened.
"I played the same game tonight, and the shots finally fell.''
Prince scored a season-high 17 points to lead the ninth-ranked Vols (7-1) to a 75-54 victory over MTSU (3-6) in the first game of the Sun Belt Classic in Nashville Arena on Friday night.
Prince's previous season-high was eight points against College of Charleston.
Senior point guard Bobby Maze was the only other UT player to score in double figures with 12 points.
"I was happy to see J.P. have a game like this and play up to his potential,'' said Maze, who had three assists. "A couple of times I waited until the shot clock got down to two seconds so he'd have to shoot the ball.
"He worked hard on his shot in the offseason.''
Pearl, who called out Prince in the media earlier in the week for not performing up to par, said he was pleased to see Prince back on track.
"I was happy for J.P., because he hasn't been as productive,'' Pearl said. "We talked about it, and it was written about, and it was all fair (criticism).
"He'll feel better about himself now.''
MTSU fans had to feel good about Desmond "Boogie" Yates, who erupted for a game-high 26 points in his second game back from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery.
Yates, who's on his way to become the Blue Raiders' all-time leading scorer, scored 13 of his team's first 16 points and single-handily kept Middle Tennessee State in contention early.
UT was up 15-14 at the 12:48 mark before a Melvin Goins' steal and dunk ignited a 11-2 run that gave the Vols a 26-16 lead on a Prince's three-point play with 6:54 left in the half.
The Blue Raiders battled back, using a 10-3 run over the final 3:35 of the first half to cut UT's lead to 37-30 at halftime.
Pearl said the Vols' press was silently serving its purpose, though, wearing down Middle Tennessee.
"We pressured them almost the whole game, and while it didn't turn them over (12), it just takes its toll,'' Pearl said. "They didn't shoot well in the second half because of the way they were pressed and harassed.''
The Blue Raiders shot .407 from the floor in the first half and .321 in the second half, including 0-for-7 beyond the 3-point arc.
It was the first UT game this season where Tyler Smith and Scotty Hopson - the team's two leading scorers - were both held under double figures.
"Tyler is willing to have five assists and no turnovers, and he's our playmaker,'' Pearl said, referring to Smith's seven points. "When he needs to score for us to win, he'll score. It's not frustration on his point, it's intelligence.''
Smith's foul troubles were compounded by a twisted ankle; he played 23 minutes.
Hopson scored one point and was 0-for-3 shooting from the field.
"Scotty didn't shoot early and didn't get a lot of good looks,'' Pearl said. "I thought he played pretty good defense. Obviously he wasn't on his game.''
The Vols return to action at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Wyoming at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Gallman Working It: Former Fulton High School standout James Gallman was held scoreless, missing his five shot attempts for MTSU.
But Gallman battled on the boards, pulling down four rebounds in his 22 minutes and dishing out two assists. He also defended Hopson and Skylar McBee, who combined to go 0-for-5 from the field.
"It felt good to play against my home team,'' said Gallman, a freshman. "We get them next year and we'll see what happens. We played hard this time, and we will play hard next time.''