"This was as big a team effort as the Tennessee basketball team has had," Pearl said on his post-game show, noting the fact that "10 guys playing double-digit minutes" made for "a team effort and a great win."
Backup point guard Jordan Howell was the leader of the bench brigade. With Ramar Smith having an off night (2 points, 1 assist, 2 turnovers), Howell saved the day with 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 18 minutes. He scored Tennessee's last three points from the foul line after a furious Mississippi State rally had whittled a 17-point deficit to 73-71 with 39.2 seconds left.
J.P. Prince added 7 points, 4 rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot in 23 relief minutes.
Duke Crews chipped in 6 points, 3 rebounds and some hard-nosed post defense in 21 minutes – his longest stint since being diagnosed with a heart condition in mid-December.
Brian Williams grabbed 5 rebounds in just 10 minutes of relief action. His 2 points were clutch – coming as UT was holding on for dear life in the closing minutes.
As Howell noted: "Brian Williams made a huge offensive rebound on a free-throw set and put it back in (after MSU had closed the 17-point deficit to 53-43). That was a huge play."
All told, Tennessee's bench provided 24 points, 20 rebounds, 5 assists and a blocked shot in 84 minutes. Conversely, the Bulldog bench produced just 11 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists (with 5 turnovers) in 40 minutes.
"The kids really responded," Pearl said, noting that "J.P. Prince had to play some 4 (power forward)" and that "Josh Tabb was terrific. He really was.... Jamont Gordon did not have a two-point basket in this game. The fact we held him to no two-point baskets was very, very significant."
Equally significant was the fact Tennessee got nearly half of its rebounds from the bench in winning the backboard battle 42-32. The Vols limited the Bulldogs to just eight offensive rebounds.
With a 19-2 overall record, a 6-1 SEC record and a No. 7 national ranking, Tennessee clearly has an excellent starting five. The reserves proved again Saturday night that the Vols have quantity, as well as quality.
"Our philosophy is that it's our 10 versus their five or seven or whatever they want to play," Howell said, adding that the need for reserves to step up Saturday night "was never discussed. It was just 'Throw another body out there.'
"We feel like we're one of the deepest teams in the country. We play 10 guys, and we have confidence in all 10."