ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands — Tennessee beat DePaul on Sunday night in the type of game it likely would have lost last year.
Vols senior Tyler Smith hit both ends of a one-and-one free-throw situation with 13.7 seconds left as UT held off the Blue Demons 57-53 at the U.S. Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center.
“I just knew I had to take my time at the line,’’ Smith said. “I loved being in that situation.’’
The 10th-ranked Vols (4-0) play the winner of Purdue (2-0)-St. Joseph’s (3-0) in the title game of the 10th annual U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam at 8:30 tonight.
Smith had 14 points and nine rebounds, and senior post Wayne Chism added 13 points and eight rebounds to lead the Vols.
Tennessee, coming off its highest scoring output in back-to-back games in school history, ran into a defensive force in Big East member DePaul.
“I was concerned this game would be played in the 50s,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said, “and we saw more ball pressure than we had seen.’’
The Vols made 22 of 59 (.373) shots from the floor and collectively hit only 3 of 12 (.250) attempts beyond the 3-point arc. Scotty Hopson, who had connected on 14 of his first 18 attempts from 3-point range this season, was held to four points and was 0-for-4 shooting beyond the arc.
“That was the first time the guys weren’t really knocking down the outside shots, so we had to grind it out,’’ Smith said. “It was very big for us to get this win, because last year we had about eight of these kind of games and we only won a couple of them.’’
Chism was clutch down the stretch, scoring nine of his points over the final 10 ½ minutes with the game in the balance.
The Vols held a 50-49 lead when Chism knocked down a 3-pointer with 3:40 left, and the next trip down the floor, Chism scored over DePaul’s 6-foot-10 center Mac Koshwal (14 points, eight rebounds).
“In the last two minutes, Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism showed their experience and acted and played like seniors,’’ DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright said. “But if I was to name a most valuable player for them, it would be Melvin Goins. He did an unbelievable job guarding . . . he showed some great leadership in the last four or five minutes.
“I think he becomes a key player for them this season, because he is a pure point guard.’’
Goins scored only six points, but he had six rebounds and played lock-down defense on DePaul’s Will Walker (14 points) down the stretch.
Walker caught fire in the midst of a Blue Demons’ second-half run, hitting a jumper to cap a 7-0 run that cut the Vols’ lead to 36-31 with 14:41 remaining.
Walker scored on his next three shots, too, a pair of them coming from 3-point range to pull DePaul to 43-41 with 12:22 left.
Pearl responded by entering Goins into the game to guard him.
“Putting Melvin in at the point really helped us defensively, and that’s what we needed to do to slow down Walker,’’ Pearl said. “I knew in a close game they’d spread the floor and try to take our guards off the bounce.’’
Walker was 0-for-3 shooting over the final 3½ minutes with Goins in his jersey.
“At the start of the season I was still getting over (knee) surgery and getting used to our system,’’ Goins said. “I’m getting a feel for the speed of the game and my teammates. It was fun being in the mix under pressure.’’
Pearl said this was the type of game the Vols needed to win after opening with three blowout victories.
“We won this game with three or four players not playing well, and that’s a good sign,’’ he said. “We held them to 33 percent shooting and out-rebounded them 44-30. What we learned tonight is we can also win games on the defensive end.’’