UT head coach Bruce Pearl was thrilled to get the victory, noting on his post-game show that the Vols "played one of the best basketball games we've played this year. We really stepped up."
Tennessee led by 12 points in the second half but the Hilltoppers pulled within a point at 79-78 with 3:28 to go. Williams scored inside for an 81-78 lead but Courtney Lee answered with a pair of free throws. Williams then scored two more inside buckets, boosting the lead to 85-80 with roughly a minute to play.
Lee scored to narrow the gap to 85-82, then Tennessee's Tyler Smith missed a pair of free throws with 41 seconds left. JaJuan Smith intercepted a WKU pass, however, and Jordan Howell wound up hitting a free throw, giving Tennessee an 86-82 lead with 20.8 seconds left. Tyler Smith secured the final margin by hitting two foul shots with 7.7 seconds left.
JaJuan Smith scored 19 points to pace Tennessee, now 9-1. Williams hit eight of 11 shots from the floor, finishing with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. Tyler Smith also scored 16 points. Chris Lofton contributed 14, despite hitting just 4 of 14 shots. J.P. Prince, playing his first game as a Vol since transferring in from Arizona a year ago, contributed 8 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals.
Tennessee used an 8-0 spurt to take an 18-9 lead in the opening minutes but a 10-1 WKU spurt tied the score at 19-all.
"They're a team of runs," Pearl said. "They're very similar to us."
Tennessee outscored Western 14-4 to build a 33-23 lead and went to intermission on top 44-38.
Western took its first lead of the second half at 51-50, and led 54-53 when Tennessee made one of its patented surges. JaJuan Smith scored on an inbounds play, then consecutive 3s by Jordan Howell, Lofton and JaJuan Smith concluded a 13-0 explosion that put Tennessee on top 66-54.
"With JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton lurking in the corners, you could see that when we were able to break pressure and get those guys some shots, that's when we were able to make our run," Pearl noted.
The Hilltoppers fought back, however, setting up Williams' late-game heroics.
Tennessee, which has lived and died by the 3-point shot for much of Pearl's tenure, showed a new dimension Saturday night.
"Our new guys – J.P., Tyler and Brian – give us two-point baskets, " Pearl said. "Brian had eight two-point baskets. Tyler had three two-point baskets and went to the line 13 times. J.P. Prince had a couple and went to the line eight times."
That trio also combined for 27 rebounds.
"The three new guys led us in rebounding," Pearl said, "and were huge in this victory."