Twists, turnarounds and treys were the order of the day for Tennessee’s Tyler Smith.
Smith scored a career-high 30 points to lead the Vols to a 69-50 victory over Vanderbilt before an announced crowd of 20,375 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday.
Tennessee used an early 14-0 run to take command of the game and led by as many as 20 points in the second half to hold on to a share of the SEC East Division lead.
Tennessee improved to 7-3 in SEC play, as did South Carolina and Kentucky with their wins Saturday. Florida lost at Georgia to fall a game back.
The Vols (16-8) snapped a three-game winning streak by the Commodores (15-9, 4-6).
“This was a good step for us,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “I talked to the players (Friday) night and today (Saturday) about honoring the game, and honoring the men who came back here (for the All-Century Team) who remember that rivalry with Vanderbilt.’’
Smith, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, also remembered his bread-and-butter move — the turnaround jumper.
“I had gotten away from my game a bit, and I wasn’t doing what I do best,’’ said Smith, who made 10 of 13 shots. “That (shot) is something I can hit, it’s like a layup for me.
“It feels good to me.”
It looked good, too, as did the play of J.P. Prince.
Prince flirted with a triple-double, scoring eight points while pulling down 10 rebounds and dishing out seven assists.
Prince also had three blocked shots and three steals and was seemingly all over the court.
“J.P. Prince is very special on the ball (defensively),’’ Pearl said. “He’s like Gumby with those long arms, or go-go (Inspector) Gadget.’’
Prince said the 23 Vanderbilt turnovers the Vols forced (on the heels of forcing 25 against Georgia) is a function of team defense as much as individual effort.
“I think we’ve just picked up our half-court defense,’’ Prince said. “Our young players are starting to understand it and talk more.’’
Pearl praised point guards Bobby Maze and Josh Tabb for holding Vanderbilt point guard Jermaine Beal to three points on 1-of-10 shooting and forcing him to make five turnovers while dishing out just one assist.
“The best way to defend the post is to pressure the ball on the perimeter,’’ Pearl said. “We tried to limit their touches (inside), and Josh and Bobby did a great job on Beal.’’
The Vols held a 26-18 lead at the half despite early shooting woes. UT made only 9 of 26 shots from the floor and 6 of 14 from the free-throw line through the first 20 minutes.
The Vols’ 14-0 run put them up 19-6 on an Emmanuel Negedu dunk at the 10:25 mark.
The Commodores scrambled back into contention by halftime, thanks in part to UT missing seven consecutive free throws.
The Vols used a 7-0 burst five minutes into the second half to put the game away. Brian Williams’ steal and layup capped the run and put Vandy down 40-24 with 14:36 left.
The Commodores failed to draw within single digits the remainder of the game.
Tennessee returns to action at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Ole Miss. The Rebels are 10-2 at home this year, and Oxford is one of two SEC venues where Pearl has yet to win.