"It'll be a track meet," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show.
"We will not be guarded that physically, that aggressively again," Pearl said. "They denied every pass."
Still, the Big Orange seemed to have the game in hand with 6:57 to go, leading 61-52 with All-American Chris Lofton at the foul line for a one-and-one. Tennessee made just 11 of 18 free throws down the stretch, however, and nearly let the game slip away.
First, Lofton missed the front end of the one-and-one. Fouled on the putback attempt, Duke Crews missed two free throws. Da'Sean Butler hit a 15-footer for the Mountaineers, and it was 61-54. After an offensive foul on UT's Tyler Smith, Butler hit a 3-pointer, and it was 61-57.
After Ramar Smith was called for carrying the ball, Alex Ruoff scored off a backdoor layup, and it was 61-59. Lofton lost his footing and the ball, then Butler made one of two foul shots. Suddenly, with 4:48 left, it was a 61-60 game.
Jordan Howell hit the front end of a one-and-one to open a 6-0 spurt that concluded with a 3 by Lofton and two foul shots by Tyler Smith. Up 67-60 with 2:47 remaining, Tennessee still wasn't out of the woods.
A 6-footer by Butler and a 3 by Wellington Smith narrowed the gap to 67-65 but Lofton hit a pair of free throws for a 69-65 lead with 1:26 left. Darris Nichols hit a layup but Butler missed a potential game-tying 16-footer with 40 seconds left.
JaJuan Smith sank a pair of free throws for Tennessee at 0:35.5, then Butler missed a six-footer. Lofton stepped to the line with a chance to expand a 71-67 lead with 23.4 seconds left but misfired twice. A Ruoff 3-pointer closed the deficit to 71-70 with 14.2 seconds left.
JaJuan Smith hit a couple of clutch free throws at 13.2, pushing the lead to 73-70. After a missed 3 by Ruoff, JaJuan made one of two foul shots, giving the Vols a 74-70 cushion with three seconds remaining. West Virginia banked home a desperation basket at the buzzer to secure the final margin.
Lofton led the Vols (5-0) with 19 points. Wayne Chism added 17 and JaJuan Smith 15. Butler scored 16 to pace the Mountaineers (2-1), while Nichols chipped in 15 and Ruoff 14.
Tennessee shot just 39.6 percent from the field, 31.8 from 3-point range and 66.0 percent (25-38) from the foul line. West Virginia shot 39.0 percent, 30.4 from 3 and 79.2 from the foul line. The Mountaineers outrebounded the Vols 42-33.
With both teams playing ferocious defense, the Vols led 11-10 midway through the first half. Tennessee had made 4 of 10 from the field, WVU 5 of 15.
"It looked like it was going to be a game in the 50s, the way we were going for a while," Pearl said.
Tennessee led 33-28 at the half and trailed only once in the second half (41-39). Still, the Vols never really had the game under control.
"This is NOT a game we win last year," Pearl said. "We absolutely lose this game because we would not have been able to guard them like we did.
"It was a grinder."