Vols win 76-71 thriller

Tennessee had a 17-point lead and a sunny outlook with 6½ minutes remaining Saturday night in Starkville ... then Mississippi State began raining 3s.

Native Tennesseans Barry Stewart (Shelbyville) and Jamont Gordon (Nashville) combined to hit seven of nine 3-point shots during a 6-minute explosion that saw the Bulldogs outscore the Vols 24-9 and trim a 64-47 deficit to 73-71 with 39.2 seconds left.

"A lesser team with less experience might have folded a little bit," UT coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "But we sucked it up."

Indeed. Backup point guard Jordan Howell sank three of four clutch free throws in the closing seconds, as Tennessee held on for a 76-71 victory.

"You never know who's going to finish," Pearl said. "Ramar Smith has been our starter (at the point) but I didn't think Ramar was playing particularly well tonight. He was bothered by the fact he got his shot blocked a couple of times and he turned it over a little bit.

"So, you've got to go with the senior, Jordan Howell. He makes a couple of big 3s and makes three of four free throws down the stretch to stop the momentum they had."

The win, coupled with Florida's loss at Arkansas, gives the seventh-ranked Vols (19-2 overall) sole possession of first place in the SEC at 6-1. No. 25 Mississippi State slips to 14-7 overall and 5-2 in league play.

Chris Lofton hit 4 of 9 shots from 3-point range and led Tennessee with 20 points. JaJuan Smith chipped in 15. Howell added 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 18 quality minutes off the bench.

Stewart hit 6 of 8 shots from beyond the arc and led Mississippi State with 21 points. Gordon added 17, despite making just 4 of 12 shots from the field. Charles Rhodes contributed 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Tennessee won the backboard battle 42-32, even though no Vol had more than 6 rebounds individually.

Mississippi State came out smoking, electrifying its crowd by racing to a quick 8-2 lead. Tennessee answered with a 14-3 run, however, that put the Vols on top 16-11. Tennessee expanded the margin to nine points (36-27) by halftime.

A 3 by Howell boosted the gap to 15 points (48-33) seven minutes into the second half. The Vols matched their biggest lead of the game when Duke Crews scored on a putback for a 64-47 bulge with around 6½ minutes left.

That's when Mississippi State launched an incredible comeback. Stewart nailed three consecutive 3-point buckets and Gordon added a fourth as the Bulldogs whittled the deficit to 70-59. The Dogs finally missed a 3 but Gordon came back to hit consecutive treys, trimming the gap to 73-67 with 2:13 remaining.

After a Gordon free throw, Stewart drained another 3, narrowing Tennessee's lead to 73-71. The partisan crowd, of course, was going wild.

Tennessee's Wayne Chism missed the front end of a one-and-one but MSU freshman Riley Benock was called for traveling. Howell made one of two free throws, bumping the lead to 74-71 with 15.4 seconds left. When Gordon finally missed a 3, Howell rebounded, was fouled and sank two free throws with 3.2 seconds left to close the deal.

The Vols won even though Tyler Smith was limited to 15 minutes and 8 points by foul trouble. JaJuan Smith and Chism also were burdened by foul problems. Ultimately, Tennessee had just enough offense to subdue the feisty Bulldogs.

"They hold teams to 62 points a game, and we scored 76," Pearl said. "They hold teams to 36 percent (from the field), and we shot 43 percent from 3.

"We did enough good things here in a tough environment to win."

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