As junior guard Kevin Punter noted on the post-game show: “If we don’t hit those, the game is probably real close.”
Tennessee’s head coach conceded the point.
“We made 17 buckets, and 10 of them were 3s,” Donnie Tyndall said. “I don’t think we’ve done that all year … where we’ve made more 3s than 2s. That obviously was big. Any time you can make double-digit 3s that’s usually a big key, and it was huge for us tonight.”
Punter and Derek Reese hit 2 of 3 treys each, Devon Baulkman and Detrick Mostella 2 of 4 each.
Tennessee also shot well from the foul line (17 of 22) in posting its fifth win in a row. The defense did the rest, limiting the Bulldogs to 33.3-percent shooting (6 of 18) in the first half and 27.8-percent shooting (5 of 18) in the second. Mississippi State made just 1 of 9 shots from beyond the arc and sank just 24 of 44 foul shots.
The Big Orange won despite shooting a chilly 35.4 percent (17 of 48) from the field and committing a whopping 18 turnovers.
“That’s life in conference play,” Tyndall said. “You grind away, and it’s not always pretty. It’s not always exact. But if you can find a way, particularly on the road, that’s huge.”
The “way” on this night was great shooting from 3, great defense and great rebounding. Tennessee limited Mississippi State to 30.6 percent from the field and won the backboard battle 44-28.
“We hold that team to 30 percent from the floor and we outrebound them by 16,” Tyndall said. “That’s toughness and grit, and I’m proud of my guys for that.”
Normally slow out of the gate, Tennessee came out smoking on this night. Punter and Josh Richardson drained treys and the Vols forced six quick turnovers in racing to a 12-0 lead with 15:11 left to halftime. Tennessee went ice cold at this point, however, enabling the Bulldogs to score the next 12 points and pull even.
Mississippi State eventually eased ahead 19-16 before Robert Hubbs ended a 12-minute Vol field-goal drought with a 3-pointer 2:54 shy of halftime that tied the game and ignited a 10-4 spurt that sent Tennessee to the break with a 26-23 lead.
Leading 32-27 six minutes into the second half, the Vols again started bombing from 3-point range. Detrick Mostella drained a trey from the left wing, then nailed one from the right corner off a backcourt steal as the lead zoomed to 38-27 with 13:01 left.
Derek Reese scored on a tip and a 3 from the right wing as the bulge swelled to 43-28. Tariq Owens made a pair of free throws, then Punter hit a 16-footer from the right wing and was fouled. His free throw completed a three-point play that bumped the lead to 18 points (48-30) with 8:58 to go.
Vols Armani Moore (6:10), Punter (3:07) and Willie Carmichael (2:22) fouled out in rapid succession, helping the Bulldogs make a 15-5 run that whittled the deficit to 53-45. Reese made the biggest shot of the game at this point. With two seconds on the shot clock, he took an inbounds pass on the deep right wing, turned and fired a 3-pointer that swished through the net, bumping the lead to 56-45 with 1:45 remaining.
With three players fouled out and Mostella nursing a sprained ankle, Tennessee’s nine-man scholarship roster during the final 2:22 was reduced to the five players on the floor and one healthy sub, walk-on Galen Campbell.
“We only have nine(scholarship players) left,” Tyndall noted, “but all nine stepped up and contributed.”
Punter finished with 15 points in leading the Vols, now 9-4 overall and 1-0 in SEC play. Josh Richardson, plagued by foul trouble, chipped in 11 points and Devon Baulkman added 10. Reese contributed 8 points and 10 rebounds. Hubbs also scored 8 points off the bench. Gavin Ware produced 12 points to pace Mississippi State, which slips to 7-7 overall and 0-1 in league action.
Tennessee returns to action Saturday, hosting Alabama at 2 p.m.