Tennessee hit 13 of its first 18 field-goal tries in the second half, outscoring Gonzaga 33-20 during that stretch and swelling a 36-31 intermission lead to 69-51. The Zags fought back to within five (76-71) with 1:15 remaining but J.P. Prince hit four of six foul shots down the stretch to help Tennessee weather the storm.
JaJuan Smith scored 18 points to pace Vols, now 12-1. Prince added 12, while Tyler Smith chipped in 11 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists in 33 sterling minutes. Chris Lofton also scored 11, while Wayne Chism and Ramar Smith contributed 10 each.
Tennessee shot 46 percent from the floor and made 10 of 29 3-pointers, including 6 of 12 in the second half. The Vols were outrebounded 41-32 but limited Gonzaga to 39-percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers.
Matt Bouldin scored 21 to pace Gonzaga, which slips to 8-4. David Pendergraft added 12. Star point guard Jeremy Pargo, coming off a 28-point effort against Oklahoma, was held scoreless for 36 minutes. He wound up with 8 points, 6 of them coming on free throws.
Although the site was theoretically "neutral," Spokane-based Gonzaga essentially was the home team playing in Seattle. Pearl noted the "hostile environment" on his post-game show, and thought UT's quick start was crucial in combating it.
"You've got to throw the first punch, hit the other guy and put him back on his heels a little bit," the Vol coach said. "I thought our guys did a really nice job, once again, of being ready to play."
Tennessee raced to a 15-5 lead in the opening minutes but Gonzaga made a 12-0 run to go up 17-15. The Vols spurted to a 30-21 lead but the Zags whittled the deficit to 36-31 by the break.
Tennessee was bomb-happy in the first half, launching 17 treys – most early in the shot clock – and making just 4. The Vols showed much better shot selection in the second half ... and got much better results.
Leading just 45-40 with 15 minutes remaining, Tennessee went on essentially a game-winning 19-6 run to widen the gap to 18 points.
Ryan Childress opened the explosion with an inside basket, then Prince scored off a nifty pass from Ramar Smith. Chism made a dunk off a lob from Lofton, then scored off a nice assist by Childress. A Lofton 3-pointer put Tennessee on top 56-42 with 11:21 remaining.
The Vols weren't through, however, JaJuan Smith hit a 12-footer, then he and Lofton drained consecutive 3-point bombs as the lead swelled to 64-46 with 9:50 to play.
Tennessee got a little lax at this point, however, and Gonzaga came roaring back. An 11-3 Zag spurt closed a 69-51 deficit to 72-62 with 4:12 remaining. Still, the Vols had enough left in the tank to pull away at the finish.
"The biggest thing we did there is most of the time we stayed patient offensively," Pearl said. "Gonzaga just didn't have the quickness or the athleticism to extend and make us go any faster."
The Vols would've won more comfortably if not for some late turnovers that stemmed from getting trapped in backcourt. A team that presses as much as UT should not have that problem, and Pearl was greatly distressed by it.
"Offensively, with our pressure set, I'm very disappointed with Jordan and Chris, and their ability to get the ball and get up the floor," the coach said. "They invited traps. We gave them (Zags) two or three chances at the end of that game, and that just cannot be the play.
"We were way, way too tentative, and I'm not too pleased with that."