Ole Miss was bigger, stronger, deeper, and for most of Saturday’s men’s basketball game, certainly looked better than Tennessee.
But coach Bruce Pearl said he had the best player on the floor in Wayne Chism, and then yet another UT walk-on stepped up in the form of unheralded Josh Bone.
The Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 20,714 did their part in No. 9 Tennessee’s gritty comeback, too, cheering on the short-handed Vols (14-2, 2-0 SEC) as they rallied for a 71-69 overtime victory over the No. 21 Rebels (13-4, 1-2).
“Without the crowd, we don’t win that game,’’ said UT senior J.P. Prince, whose free throw with 6.8 seconds left used every bit of the rim before falling through to ice the game. “We were tired, and everything has just been a grind.’’
Chism said he was “tired, and put that in all-caps’’ after posting his second consecutive double-double with 26 points and 12 rebounds, including a 10-of-10 performance at the free-throw line.
“We can’t complain about the physicalness, because we knew it was coming,’’ said Chism, who logged a career-high 41 minutes. “I felt the crowd believed in me, and it’s good to have the crowd behind me when I’m shooting.’’
There was a time in Chism’s career when many UT fans groaned each time the 6-foot-9 post/forward launched 3-pointers.
But Saturday, Chism drilled back-to-back 3-pointers in the midst of a 15-2 run that Bone capped with a 3-pointer to give the Vols a 55-54 edge with 5:18 left.
It was the first time UT had been ahead, but the lead changed hands twice more before Ole Miss had the last shot at averting overtime with the score 59-59.
The Rebels put the ball in the hands of their All-SEC point guard and leading scorer, Chris Warren.
Bone, a transfer from Southern Illinois, was waiting for Warren, ready to throw up another defensive road block with the game on the line.
Warren, 5-of-18 shooting, was forced to settle for an off-balance jumper that clanked off just before the buzzer.
Bodies banged, players crashed to the floor and a ball laced with sweat had slipped through hands over the final minutes.
“The ball was slippery from all that sweat that was out there,’’ said Prince, who scored 14 points and had eight rebounds and eight assists in a career-high 38 minutes. “Ole Miss is a team we’ve had trouble with because they are so physical, so strong; a weight-room team.’’
The game was tied 61-61 with 1:34 left in overtime when Bone hit a 3-pointer to put UT up 64-61.
The Rebels answered with Terrico White’s 3-pointer and ensuing free throw after Prince was whistled for a foul at the 1:12 mark.
The Vols, who trailed by as many as 12 in the first half, were behind once again.
And again, it was Chism stepping up, this time from the free-throw line, draining six consecutive free throws over the final 49.7 seconds.
On the other end, UT had switched into a seldom-used zone defense that proved effective.
“Interestingly enough, zone defense was a factor, as we struggled against it,’’ said Pearl, whose team was 6-of-23 shooting beyond the arc. “Then we played zone against them five or six times, and I don’t think they scored on it.
“We saw zone disrupted Ole Miss (in an 80-75 loss) against Mississippi State, and it disrupted them again today.’’
The Vols were up 70-65 after a pair of Chism free throws with 12.8 seconds left when White drove for two of his 17 points to bring the Rebels back within 70-67 with 7.3 seconds left.
That’s when Prince was fouled on the inbounds pass, missing his first free throw before sinking the clincher.
“We’ve expended a great deal of energy the last three games in seven days,’’ Pearl said. “This homestand was about our program and our fans. These guys are battling; I don’t know how good we can be, but I’m proud of them.’’
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, 2-2 against Pearl, gave credit where it was due.
“They just had a senior step up in Chism, a guy I’m sure has taken the reins of this team, and he made big plays,’’ Kennedy said. “We led this conference in fewest turnovers . . . the strength of our team is in the backcourt, and today we turned it over 21 times.
“This is still Tennessee basketball; they just cannot extend it for 94 feet based upon the lack of numbers.’’
That will change before the next game Tuesday night at Alabama (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.).
Pearl announced before Saturday’s game that Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum have been reinstated. The pair has been suspended four games for their role in the New Year’s Day traffic stop the resulted in Tyler Smith’s dismissal and Brian Williams’ continued suspension.