CINCINNATI (AP)—Worried that his technical foul might amount to a devastating setback, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl looked into his players’ faces and saw something he hadn’t seen all season.
Instead of concerned, the 12th-ranked Volunteers looked confident.
J.P. Prince scored a career-high 23 points Saturday, and Tyler Smith led a late surge that rallied No. 12 Tennessee to an 82-75 victory over Xavier, which couldn’t handle the Volunteers’ pressure defense when it mattered.
The Musketeers (8-3) had a season-high 21 turnovers, four after they took a four-point lead with 3:47 to go.
“In the last four minutes, they were the meaner, tougher, more relentless, nastier team, and they won the game,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “They made three or four unbelievable hustle plays in the last four minutes that turned the game to their favor.”
Count Pearl as the most appreciative. His technical foul for leaving the coaching box helped Xavier get that 73-69 lead and got the crowd revved.
“They really bailed me out,” Pearl said. “They stepped it up after I picked up the technical foul. I never saw any doubt in my players’ minds that they would win the game. Today was the first day I’ve seen that look. The look came the last four minutes of the game.”
Tennessee (11-1) won its sixth straight despite an uncharacteristically quiet game from beyond the 3-point arc. The Volunteers overcame it with Prince’s breakout game and their frenetic defense at the end. Smith had six points in a closing 13-2 run.
“We stress not giving up,” said Smith, who finished with 12 points. “We made a lot of good plays at the end of the game. The technical set us back, but we came back and played hard.”
Prince, playing in his third game since transferring from Arizona, went 9-of-14 from the field against a defense stacked to take away the 3-pointer.
“The world doesn’t know what I can do, but the coaches and my teammates see it in practice,” said Prince, who had 16 points in the first half. “They know I can have days like this.”
Stanley Burrell scored 18 points for the Musketeers, who went 24-of-27 from the free throw line but couldn’t overcome their clumsiness in the closing minutes. Turnovers on consecutive possessions helped Tennessee pull ahead.
“We lost all our concentration at the end of the game,” Burrell said, still fuming. “You don’t blow a game like that. This is a hard one to swallow. It’s very disappointing how we finished the game. We just totally collapsed at the end.”
Tennessee is one of the nation’s most prolific 3-point shooting teams, and went to its favorite weapon right off the opening tip. Wayne Chism made a 3, and Chris Lofton let out a whoop after making a 23-footer over a screen for a 6-0 lead.
That got Xavier’s attention. The Musketeers extended their man-to-man defense, taking away the long shot. The Volunteers missed their next five from behind the arc and finished 5-of-20 overall on 3-point attempts.
Prince was the perfect antidote.
The 6-foot-7 sophomore who was one of the nation’s top prep point guards sat out the first nine games, completing his NCAA requirement after transferring from Arizona. He scored eight and 13 points in his first two games, then strutted his stuff against Xavier.
Driving through the spread-out defense, Prince scored 16 points in the first half, which ended with Tennessee ahead 39-36. He stripped Burrell to set up a fastbreak dunk, then made two fastbreak layups in an 8-2 run that gave Tennessee its biggest lead at 19-8.
Prince scored eight consecutive points during one stretch, scoring off a dunk, a layup, a floating jumper and two free throws. The Musketeers finally made a run late in the first half, when Burrell had a three-point play and his first 3-pointer, tying it at 34.
Xavier pushed the pace at the start of the second half and got its first lead. Burrell had a driving layup and a 3-pointer, and forward Josh Duncan— limited by a sore left knee—ended an 0-for-6 shooting slump with a pull-up jumper that put the Musketeers up 45-41.
Burrell continued to assert himself, hitting a 22-footer that gave Xavier its biggest lead, 54-49, with 12:40 to go. There were three ties and five lead changes—both head coaches also got technicals for leaving the coaching box— before Tennessee’s defense took over.
“Four weeks ago, we would have gotten run out of here,” Pearl said. “But we’ve made progress. This is the best we’ve played. This is the hardest we’ve competed.”