ATHENS, Ga. (AP)—Tyler Smith was on crutches Friday and out of Bruce Pearl’s early starting lineup on Saturday.
Smith convinced his coach he could play, and he backed up his words by leading Tennessee to a win in its Southeastern Conference opener.
Smith had 24 points and 11 rebounds, including 13 points in the second half, and No. 15 Tennessee rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half to beat Georgia 86-77 on Saturday.
Smith hurt his left knee in Wednesday night’s overtime loss to Gonzaga. Though X-rays on the knee were negative, he spent two days on crutches before joining the Vols on the trip to Georgia.
When Tennessee gathered for a shootaround on Saturday morning, Smith was not listed as a starter.
“He didn’t think I was going to play at all,” said Smith of Pearl.
“By me being able to walk on it, I knew I’d be able to run. … I want this team to win and I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Pearl watched nervously as Smith walked with a limp outside the Tennessee locker room after the game.
“Not many guys would have played in his condition,” Pearl said.
Georgia trailed by 11 in the first half before the Bulldogs found a temporary solution to their turnover problems to pull ahead 54-44 with 12:22 remaining.
Georgia took its last lead at 74-73 with 3:17 left. The Bulldogs were held scoreless for 3 minutes as the Vols scored the next 13 points.
“Honestly, we just did not quite finish,” Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. “We didn’t finish the deal.”
Pearl said Smith, who didn’t practice Thursday and Friday, inspired his teammates by starting in the game.
“The message is we don’t win the game without him,” Pearl said. “The message is, if he’s not the best player in the SEC, he’s the best competitor. Tyler is the best competitor and he absolutely willed this basketball team to win.”
Pearl had his team pressing on defense in the opening minutes. The defense set the early pace as the Vols led by 11 in the first half.
“I pressed early,” Pearl said. “I usually wait. I just wanted our guys to be more responsive.”
Tennessee’s defense again took over in the final minutes.
Georgia’s Ricky McPhee hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds for the Bulldogs’ first field goal since a jam by Jeremy Price with 8:08 remaining.
Three days after seeing its school-record 37-game home winning streak end with an overtime loss to Gonzaga, the Vols snapped a two-game losing streak.
Pearl said the Vols could not afford to take a losing streak into Tuesday night’s game against Kentucky.
“I would not say many times on the road in the SEC this early would you begin to put yourself in the position where you’d say it’s a must win,” said Pearl of the Georgia game. “I didn’t get asked that question but this was one we had to get.”
Bobby Maze had 16 points, Cameron Tatum had 13 and Wayne Chism added 11 for Tennessee (10-4 overall, 1-0 Southeastern Conference).
Tennessee continued its domination of Georgia. It has won nine straight and 11 of 12 in the series.
Terrance Woodbury led Georgia (9-7, 0-1) with 18 points. Freshman Trey Thompkins had 14 points and nine rebounds. Another first-year player, guard Dustin Ware, had 11 points.
Tennessee scored 22 points off Georgia’s 17 turnovers.
“Down the stretch we had some panicky possessions,” Felton said. “We had been doing a very good job of executing, getting what we wanted, having them on their heels.”
Tennessee’s pressure man-to-man defense frustrated Georgia early in the game. The Bulldogs committed four turnovers before their first field goal—a 3-pointer by Woodbury 5:20 into the game.
Tennessee stretched its lead to 10 points for the first time at 24-14, and 12 of the Vols’ points at that stage followed Georgia turnovers.
Thompkins helped the Bulldogs recover.
The 6-foot-9 Thompkins, a dangerous outside shooter, was effective under the basket as he scored Georgia’s first six points of the second half.
After two free throws by Woodbury gave Georgia the 74-73 lead, Chism answered to give Tennessee the lead for good. Turnovers by Albert Jackson and Thompkins helped the Vols quickly stretch the lead.