OXFORD, Miss. - Tennessee missed an opportunity to take over sole possession of first place in the SEC Eastern Division Wednesday night.
It was a night filled with misses for the Vols: from the free throw line, the field and on the backboard.
Ole Miss (14-11, 5-6 SEC) routed UT (16-9, 7-4) by an 81-65 count in Tad Smith Coliseum before a crowd of 7,250.
Mississippi State defeated South Carolina and Florida beat Alabama in other games Wednesday, leaving the Gamecocks, Gators, Vols and Kentucky tied atop the East at 7-4.
More than 1,000 orange-and-white clad Vols’ fans left Oxford disappointed by Tennessee’s disjointed play.
No one was more disappointed than UT coach Bruce Pearl.
“It’s a mental and physical toughness that this team has lacked all season long,’’ Pearl said. “But we’re still in first place. It is what it is.’’
Wayne Chism led UT with 19 points, and Tyler Smith had 16. It was one of the Vols weaker offensive showings as they managed just 10 assists — their lowest since getting eight in an 18-point home loss to Kentucky.
Tennessee hit only 11 of 24 free throws — this, after Pearl said he was going to emphasize it this week.
The Vols shot 42 percent from the floor, but made only 6 of 24 of their 3-point attempts.
The Rebels, led by freshman point guard Terrico White’s 21 points and six assists, also out-rebounded UT 44-30. Freshman Murphy Holloway dominated from his power forward position, scoring 18 points and pulling down 13 rebounds.
“I’m at a loss for words,’’ Smith said. “We keep taking a step forward, and then taking a step back.’’
Ole Miss, the youngest team in the SEC, saw to it the Vols took a step back in the second half, opening the final 20 minutes on a 7-0 run.
Scotty Hopson’s 3-pointer at the 18-minute mark was the only points the Vols could muster until there were 14½ minutes to play. By then, UT was down 15.
Smith hit a bucket inside to make the score 50-37 and ignite a 5-0 run that pulled UT within 50-40 when Chism split a pair of free throws with 12:49.
UT missed its first five free throws of the second half before Chism’s make.
Ole Miss had the lead pumped back up to 15 at the 11:31 mark on a David Huertas three-point play that made it 55-40.
The Vols couldn’t get closer than 12 after that, even with associate head coach Tony Jones off the bench helping Pearl encourage the UT players from the sidecourt.
The frustrations ran over with 4:46 left when J.P. Prince hit the floor after being bumped by Holloway, who was driving.
Prince got up and said: “that was a foul,’’ and was assessed a technical — his fifth foul of the game.
“I didn’t think we showed poise, and we let ourselves get rattled,’’ Pearl said. “At this point of the season, there’s no excuse for it.’’
Huertas hit both technical free throws to put the Rebels up 72-56.
The rest of the game was filled with chippy play and missed free throws by both teams.
Tennessee returns to action at Kentucky on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 1 p.m.).