ATHENS, Ga. — Tennessee captain Tyler Smith was on crutches Friday and on his game Saturday.
Smith’s gritty effort symbolized how the 15th-ranked Vols (10-4, 1-0 SEC) got tough at Georgia (9-7, 0-1)) in their 86-77 win at Stegeman Coliseum.
Smith scored 24 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and dished out six assists, much to the delight of the orange-clad fans that represented at least one-third of the 8,769 in attendance.
“I honestly didn’t think Tyler would play,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We practiced the past two days without him, and I game-planned without him.
“There’s swelling, and it’s sore, but I think it was about being from Tennessee for him.’’
Smith said his name wasn’t in the starting lineup Saturday morning, but he begged his way into the lineup by game time.
“Yeah, I can still feel it, but I felt like if I could walk on it, I could play,’’ said Smith, who suffered a deep knee bruise in the loss to Gonzaga Wednesday. “I want to be out there and be a leader, and I thought if the other guys see that, maybe they follow. Tennessee means a lot to me.’’
Junior Wayne Chism (12 points, seven rebounds) got tough, too, exchanging words with Georgia McDonald’s All-American Trey Thompkins and throwing the freshman off his game.
“He made a bucket on me, and turned to me and said ‘Gotcha,’ ’’ the normally amicable Chism said. “So on the other end, I posted him up and drew a foul, and said “Got you! The refs told me to calm down.
“I think me and Tyler kinda got in his head a little bit.’’
Steve Forbes, the Vols’ defensive coaching guru, got in point guard Bobby Maze’s face at halftime.
“Bobby’s the kind of guy who can handle the brutal truth,’’ said Forbes, who grabbed Maze’s jersey. “I consider him a great player, and I knew he could play so much better. He needed a good butt-chewing.’’
Maze, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half and tied his career-high with six rebounds, agreed.
“I give a lot of credit to coach Forbes,’’ Maze said. “He grabbed me and told me I haven’t been playing well. He got in my chest. Him getting on me helped me.’’
And Maze helped the Vols. Defense starts at the top of the key, and with Maze locking down the opposing point guard, Georgia struggled to penetrate and move the ball on the perimeter down the stretch.
After trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, the Bulldogs used a 12-2 run to go up by 10, 54-44, with 12:25 remaining.
But Pearl, still feeling the game was in UT’s control, didn’t call a timeout. Brian Williams made the decision pay off by scoring a bucket inside to kick-start the Vols’ offense.
As is often the case, the defense responded, allowing Georgia just one field goal over the last eight minutes, the sole basket coming with 3.8 seconds left.
UT’s Cameron Tatum showed some tough-mindedness by making his only 3-pointer of the day — after missing his first seven attempts — to tie the game at 71-71 with 4:59 left. The next trip down, Smith drove for a basket to give the Vols a 73-72 advantage, their first lead since the 16:13 mark.
Georgia’s Terrance Woodbury hit a pair of free throws with 3:17 remaining for two of his team-high 18 points, giving the Bulldogs a 74-73 lead.
But UT ran away from there, scoring on four of its next five trips down the floor on an 8-0 run for an 81-74 lead with 1:08 left, and ex tending the run to 13-0 before Georgia hit a three with 3.8 seconds left.
“The team feels better,’’ Pearl said. “This was an important win for Tennessee.’’
The Vols return to action when they play host to Kentucky (12-4, 1-0) at 9 o’clock Tuesday night in a nationally televised ESPN game.