Tennessee men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl prepared his Vols to play defense and rebound.
Memphis coach John Calipari said he prepared his team for “war.’’
The No. 22 Tigers won in a battle, scoring a 54-52 victory before a sellout crowd of 21,905 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon.
“What I told the guys was it was going to be a war,’’ said Calipari. “I watched the tape from last year, and it was a war. It was not basketball, it was hand-to-hand combat. So we worked all week and that is what it was.’’
Memphis freshman point guard Tyreke Evans, a McDonald’s All-American, scored 17 points to lead the Tigers (16-3).
Tennessee’s Tyler Smith scored 13 points and had 10 rebounds, and Wayne Chism had 15 points and six rebounds.
“Over the last three ballgames, this (UT) team has defended, and I thought they did a terrific job to hold Memphis to 54 points,’’ said Pearl, whose Vols drop to 12-6 and most assuredly will spend at least another week outside the Top 25. “I told our team that defense and rebounding wins championships . . .’’
But it wasn’t enough to beat the Tigers, who did a pretty good job playing defense and rebounding, too, particularly with the game on the line.
The Vols trailed 53-52 when guard Bobby Maze rebounded an Evans miss with 34 seconds left, and UT brought the ball past midcourt and called timeout with 20.1 seconds remaining.
Pearl drew up a play to get Chism the ball inside, as the junior center was 4-of-5 shooting in the second half.
Calipari saw it coming, and extended his troops to prevent the entry pass.
The ball was tossed around like a live hand grenade before finding its way to Smith, who was in position to come through on calling his shot.
Some 24 hours earlier, asked what the determining factor in the game would be, Smith replied, “Whoever has the clutch player.’’
Smith worked to free himself for a shot, but Memphis’ Robert Dozier, a lanky 6-foot-9 forward, stayed in the 6-7 Smith’s jersey.
Smith’s leaner with six seconds left bounced off the side of the rim, and J.P. Prince came up short in his effort for a tip-in.
“I’ve got to make that shot,’’ Smith said dejectedly. “I usually make them, or I try to get the foul. There was some contact, that’s why I got off balance.’’
It was that type of physical game on both sides.
The 6-6 Evans, who some project to be a one-and-done college player, came down with his eighth rebound.
The Vols were forced to foul with 4.6 seconds left, but Memphis wasn’t yet in the bonus, so all the Tigers had to do was inbound the ball cleanly.
They did so twice, Evans drawing the foul the second time thus sending him to the free-throw line with 1.9 seconds left. After making his first free throw, Evans missed his second shot intentionally.
Chism came down with the rebound and called timeout with 1.1 seconds left. After two more timeouts — both by the Tigers as Calipari studied UT’s offensive sets — Chism threw a three-quarter-court pass to Josh Tabb, who pivoted 30 feet from the basket and shot at the buzzer.
Tabb missed, just as UT had done throughout the game from outside the paint, hitting only 2 of 10 shots beyond the 3-point line and 14 of 23 attempts from the free-throw line.
“I’m proud of my team, and I’m proud of this program,’’ Pearl said. “What a crowd, what an atmosphere, and I apologize to our fans we have not defended our home court.’’
UT will have two pivotal opportunities to do so in the next week; LSU and Florida, a pair of SEC teams making a run for NCAA tournament berths, come to Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (9 p.m.).