The win earns the Vols (31-4) a berth in the East Regional semifinals Thursday at Charlotte. The opponent will be Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals, who moved to 26-8 Sunday evening by thrashing Oklahoma.
"This basketball team is resilient," Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "It's a word we've been using all year long."
No Vol was more resilient than Ramar Smith. Benched after starting 14 of the previous 15 games, he proved his mettle by making two of the season's biggest buckets as Tennessee outscored Butler 13-8 in overtime.
"He sure did," Pearl said. "He made big baskets and big stops."
Wayne Chism led Tennessee's scoring with 16 points. Tyler Smith added 15 points and 8 rebounds but committed 7 turnovers. JaJuan Smith chipped in 11 points and Chris Lofton 9. J.P. Prince, making his first career start at the point, added 9 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists but committed 6 turnovers.
Although he stopped short of saying Prince will start at the point again in the Sweet 16, Pearl indicated he was generally pleased with the 6-7 sophomore's performance.
"Getting your best players on the floor ... did it hurt us a little bit down the stretch with execution?" the coach asked rhetorically. "Yes, it hurt us a little bit but he made plays, and that was a big difference."
Like most Tennessee wins, this one wasn't pretty. The Vols missed 10 of their 29 free throws, committed 20 turnovers and shot just 38.2 percent (13 of 34) from the field in the second half. They outrebounded the Bulldogs 46-39, however, and limited Butler to 36-percent shooting for the game.
Pete Campbell added 12 points and Willie Veasley 11 for Butler, which finishes its season 30-4. After hitting 53.6 percent (15 of 28) on 3-point attempts Friday against South Alabama, the Bulldogs made just 34.6 (9 of 26) vs. the Vols.
"We made 'em make tough 2s," Pearl said. "I thought the kids had a good feel for what we needed to do defensively."
The Big Orange came out smoking, draining three of its first four 3-point attempts and racing to a 21-8 lead.
"We got off to a great start," Pearl said. "We hit 'em right in the mouth."
The Vols went ice cold from beyond the arc thereafter, however, hitting just one of their next 14 attempts. With Tennessee misfiring, the Bulldogs eventually clawed back to tie at 60-all with 2:37 to play.
A Chism basket and a Tyler Smith free throw gave the Vols a 63-60 lead with 1:23 to go but Prince committed back-to-back turnovers, helping the Bulldogs pull even at 63 by the end of regulation.
Lofton ended Tennessee's 3-point drought by draining a 25-footer a minute into the overtime but Green answered for Butler, tying the score at 66. A Graves drive gave Butler its first lead of the game at 68-66 with 1:46 left but Ramar Smith promptly scored on a drive to tie the score with 1:25 remaining.
A Chism bucket off a great assist from JaJuan Smith gave Tennessee a 70-68 lead, then another driving basket by Ramar Smith boosted the margin to 72-68 with 26.6 seconds to play.
A follow shot by Campbell closed the gap to 72-70 but JaJuan Smith hit two free throws at 13.6 seconds and two more at 3.8 seconds to seal the deal.
Pearl now stands 7-4 against Butler, including 1-1 at Tennessee. He was 6-3 against the Bulldogs during his four-year stint at Horizon League rival Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"Gosh, I am so tired of seeing Butler," Pearl quipped. "I left the Horizon League to get away from Butler. Then I come to Tennessee and have to play them two more times – once in the (2006 Preseason) NIT and once in the NCAA Tournament."
Thursday's game in Charlotte will mark Tennessee's second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16. No Vol team has ever advanced beyond the Sweet 16.
"It's good for the University of Tennessee to go back again," Chism said. "Now it's time to make one more step ... to the Elite Eight."