After deftly deflecting an entry pass near the Vandy free-throw line, he raced down the floor, gathered in a 50-foot pass from teammate JaJuan Smith and rammed home an emphatic dunk, igniting a 19-7 finishing kick that turned a tenuous 61-53 lead into an 80-60 triumph.
"It was a great defensive play by a great player," Vol coach Bruce Pearl said. "I can't begin to tell you the confidence that Tyler Smith gives our basketball team. He talks the talk a little but he walks the walk in a huge way."
The win, Tennessee's 10th in a row and 25th in succession at home dating to 2006, improves the sixth-ranked Vols' record to 15-1 overall and 3-0 in SEC play. The loss drops 16th-ranked Vandy to 16-2 and 1-2.
Tyler Smith is rapidly emerging as Tennessee's Mr. Clutch. He hit the tying and winning baskets in the final 80 seconds of the Vols' 85-83 defeat of Ole Miss in their SEC opener eight days earlier. This time it was a key defensive play that proved decisive.
"Coach just told me to pressure the 4 man (power forward), get up in him, because a lot of their offense runs through their 4 man," Smith said. "I got up in him and got a tip, then JaJuan found me on a layup."
Tennessee seemed to have the game in hand after taking a 59-38 lead with 11:24 to play. Vanderbilt went on a 15-2 run, however, that narrowed the gap to 61-53 and forced Pearl to call a timeout.
"He was telling us not to slow down, to keep attacking ‘em, keep playing the way we were playing that got us up 20 at one point," JaJuan Smith recalled. "That's what we had to do – refocus and get back in it."
Down by just 8, Vandy had the ball and the momentum. Tyler Smith's quick-handed deflection cost the Commodores both. His high-flying dunk seemed to invigorate the Vol crowd and take the starch right out of the visitors.
"Sometimes it takes a dunk to get it going and get over the edge," JaJuan Smith said. "I think that got us going and got the crowd back on their feet. We got a lot of energy and started locking up on defense."
Actually, the Vols locked up on defense most of the night. Vanderbilt entered Thursday's game leading the entire NCAA in 3-point percentage at 43.9 but went a frigid 3 of 21 against Tennessee. Superstar Shan Foster, hitting 51.1 percent of his treys coming in, made just 1 of 11 attempts. He finished with a team-high 14 points but needed 17 field-goal tries to get them.
"I think Tennessee's defense – our ball pressure – was definitely a factor in disrupting them," Pearl said. "If you let Vanderbilt run their offense, Kevin Stallings' offense will carve you up."
Although Tyler Smith's late heroics enabled him to finish with 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals, Tennessee's stat star was Wayne Chism. The 6-9 sophomore recorded 18 points and 18 rebounds. He also blocked four shots by Vandy's 6-10 freshman sensation, A.J. Ogilvy, who finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds and 4 turnovers.
Vanderbilt led 12-10 early but Ogilvy picked up his second foul with 11:12 to go in the half and went to the bench. When Tennessee made a 12-3 spurt to grab a 22-15 lead, Stallings quickly returned Ogilvy to the floor. The Vols had seized the momentum, however, and they went to the half leading 36-23.
Down 45-32 four minutes into he second half, Vanderbilt switched from man-to-man to a zone. Vol All-American Chris Lofton, held scoreless in the first half, promptly bombed in a 3-pointer. Although the Commodores immediately abandoned the zone, Lofton added a driving layup and another 3-pointer in a 14-6 surge that gave Tennessee its 59-38 lead with 11:24 remaining.
That's when Vanderbilt made its 15-2 run to pull within 8 and set up the Vols' big finish.
Though unhappy that his team squandered much of its 21-point lead, Pearl was very encouraged by the composure his team showed down the stretch.
"Our guys are confident in themselves; they're confident in each other," the coach said. "That's a really nice thing to have out there."