When the Vols fell behind Ohio State by six with six minutes gone in the second half, Tyler Smith, Ramar Smith and JaJuan Smith kicked it in gear. The Smith Trio combined for 17 points in a game-changing 21-5 run as the Vols prevailed 74-69 Saturday afternoon before a CBS audience at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee ran its winning streak to 26 at home, to 11 overall and to one over Ohio State. It was a big one.
It doesn't exactly make up for being eliminated by the Buckeyes during the Sweet 16 of last year's NCAA Tournament, but it's much better than the alternative for UT.
``They ruined our season,'' Tennessee's Chris Lofton said. ``They ruined our summer.''
JaJuan Smith had 15 points, and Tyler Smith and Ramar Smith 12 each. Chris Lofton added 13.
In the first half, Ohio State was showered with chants of ``SEC, SEC, SEC.''
In the second half, fans serenaded the Buckeyes with ``LSU, LSU, LSU.''
But in the end, it was the Smiths who had the last word. The 21-5 spurt provided Tennessee (16-1) with a 10-point cushion. But poor free-throw showing – the Vols missed five at key moments – kept the verdict in doubt until the final minute.
``We need to do a better job of making free throws when we get them,'' Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. ``We've missed free throws before and it hasn't cost us a game.''
But it might, and that's why Pearl said his players would spent more time at the foul line the next couple of days of practice.
Ohio State (12-6) crept to within 72-69 with 1:55 left, then missed three 3-point attempts – the final two in the last 20 seconds by Jon Diebler, the all-time high school leading scorer in state of Ohio history.
Tyler Smith sealed the deal with two free throws with 13 seconds left. And after two more Buckeye misses, Ramar Smith – fittingly – corralled the last rebound of the game.
Pearl felt good about what he considered to be a quality win.
``Ohio State will compete for the Big Ten title,'' Pearl said.
The Buckeyes threw a scare into the Vols by taking 49-43 lead early in the second half. Kosta Koufos, who went scoreless in the first half, sparked the rally with a 3-pointer, a hook shot and a 3-point play the old-fashioned way.
``I didn't like our body language,'' said Pearl. ``Ohio State's success and run looked like it bothered us. I thought we were more seasoned than that.''
That's when UT answered with its best eight minutes of the afternoon.
During the run, Chris Lofton hit a three on a feed from Ramar Smith. But he also missed two of three free throws and gunned up an air ball on an open three.
Still, Lofton hit 4-of-10 threes, only the fifth time this season he's hit at least 40 percent from beyond the arc.
``Chris made four threes, that's pretty good,'' Pearl said, emphasizing the positive. When asked about some of Lofton's misses, Pearl dismissed the question, tired of answering as to why one of the nation's best shooters isn't shooting like it.
Lofton said his stroke felt better Saturday than previously. But he's still not the marksman he has been throughout his UT career. He's gone from a 44 percent career 3-point shooter to 33 percent this year.
Entering the game Pearl felt fatigue would be a factor since the Vols scored an emotional 20-point win over Vanderbilt less than 48 hours earlier. Ohio State had two more days of rest. But UT had nine guys in the rotation, Ohio State just seven, and four Buckeyes played at least 30 minutes.
UT's bench outscored Ohio State 26-0 and collected 17 rebounds.
``The difference was nine on seven,'' Pearl said.
The difference was also UT's defense. The Vols held Ohio State to 41 percent shooting, including 2 of 20 from 3-point range. OSU was 0 of 7 in the first half beyond the arc. UT held Vanderbilt, the nation's best 3-point shooting team, to 3 of 21 on treys.
That's another reason the Vols are so tough to beat.
Of course, it didn't hurt Tennessee's cause that the Buckeyes didn't have 7-foot center Greg Oden and Michael Conley Jr – both of whom went pro after their freshmen seasons.
Can you imagine how good Ohio State would be with those guys?
``I don't want to,'' Lofton said.
It was no time to think about what if.
It was time to savor a victory over a team that knocked you out of the NCAA Tournament last year. And time to get ready for a Tuesday trip to Kentucky.