TAMPA, Fla. — Tennessee forward Tyler Smith was an angry young man before Friday night’s game.
Smith was upset about his 3-for-15 shooting in the 70-67 loss to Alabama in Knoxville last Sunday and frustrated UT hasn’t played its best ball often enough this season.
Smith reached his boiling point when Tide guard Senario Hillman ran though the Vols’ pregame shoot-around session.
“That just added to it,’’ Smith said. “We feel that’s disrespecting our team.’’
So Smith and fired-up Tennessee made Alabama respect them, scoring an 86-62 victory in the SEC men’s basketball tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The Vols (20-11) play at 3:15 p.m. today (TV: WVLT) against Auburn (22-10), a 61-58 winner over Florida, with the winner advancing to Sunday’s championship game.
“When you win these things, it’s almost as much for your fans as anything,’’ said UT coach Bruce Pearl, who improved to 2-3 in SEC tournament games in four seasons with the Vols. “I’m really glad our fans don’t have to go home tonight.’’
The Vols’ followers who traveled to Auburn Feb. 7 left unhappy after the Tigers won 78-77 on Korvotney Barber’s bucket in the final seconds. Auburn out-rebounded the Vols 34-21.
“They are one of the toughest, most physical hard-nosed teams we’ve played against,’’ Pearl said. “That was a key win for Auburn in them taking off.’’
On Friday, the Vols played angry and eager to improve their NCAA tournament seeding from the outset, leading from the opening tip and running out to a 9-2 advantage on the Tide (18-14).
UT’s only struggle was from the perimeter; it hit 1-of-14 shots from beyond the 3-point arc in the first half.
Still, the Vols held a 43-32 halftime lead.
“I think they just came ready to play,’’ Tide guard A lonzo Gee said, “and they were physical the whole game.’’
J.P. Prince stole the ball on the opening possession and dunked to set the tone
Smith scored 22 points on 8-of-17 shooting and had six rebounds and two assists.
Prince recorded his first double-double of the season with 14 points and 10 rebounds to go with five assists. Wayne Chism scored 15 and pulled down seven rebounds.
The Vols outscored Alabama 60-28 in the paint on the strength of offensive rebounds (17) and transition baskets. UT’s defense enabled the Vols to run, forcing 18 turnovers that led to a 20-2 advantage on fast breaks.
“We played hard, we played unselfishly, and we had great leadership from our veterans, Tyler, Wayne and J.P.,’’ Pearl said. “This time of year, your backs are against the wall. You don’t play well, you go home.
“If our defense and rebounding continues to hold up, we can continue to advance.’’
UT’s defense and rebounding held up in the second half — the Vols opened the final 20 minutes with a 17-0 run.
Smith capped the burst with a floater that gave UT its largest lead at 60-32 with 13:34 left.
Andrew Steele’s free throws stopped the run and were the Tide’s first points of the second half at the 13:30 mark.
“I thought they got off to a great start in the game,’’ said Alabama interim coach Philip Pearson, whose team had won five of six entering the game. “To Tennessee’s credit, they came out and threw another punch or two (in the second half) and we weren’t able to recover.’’