Slowed by a bone bruise in his left leg, Smith was cleared to play just one hour before tipoff. Even so, he produced 24 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists in guiding the 15th-ranked Vols to a come-from-behind 86-77 defeat of Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum.
"What a competitor," UT coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show, adding: "We don't win this game without Tyler. We just don't."
Trailing 74-73 with 3:17 to play, Tennessee went on a 13-0 run to go up 86-74 with 13.8 seconds left. Georgia finally ended its scoring drought with a meaningless 3-pointer that secured the final margin.
Smith, a 6-7, 220-pound junior forward, finished 9 of 18 from the field, 1 of 3 beyond the arc and 5 of 7 from the foul line. He also blocked a shot and recorded a steal. Basically, he put the Vols on his shoulders and carried them to victory in their SEC opener.
"That's what Tyler's supposed to do," Pearl said. "He did inside. He did outside. It was just like No. 5 (Chris Lofton) did last year."
In addition to snapping a two-game losing streak, the victory improves Tennessee's record to 10-4 overall and 1-0 in league play. Georgia slips to 9-7 and 0-1. The Dawgs have lost nine consecutive games to Tennessee, including five straight in their home gym.
As with most Vol games, this one featured tremendous momentum shifts. The Vols led 33-23 only to see Georgia close the half with a 9-3 spurt that narrowed the gap to 36-32 by intermission.
Building on its first-half finish, the Dawgs outscored Tennessee 22-8 to open the second half, building a 54-44 lead with 12:27 remaining. Tennessee would not pull even until Georgia native Cameron Tatum (Lithonia) hit his only 3-pointer of the game – he was 1 of 10 – to knot the score at 71 with 5:00 left.
Wayne Chism scored inside to give the Vols the lead for good at 75-74 and ignite the 13-0 run that proved decisive. Georgia's 3-pointer with 3.8 seconds left was its first field goal in more than eight minutes. The Dawgs' only points during that stretch came from the foul line, where they were 9 of 15 during their finishing fade.
Smith, a surprise starter who wound up playing 34 minutes, said Vol trainer Chad Newman "worked miracles on my knee the last two days." And, despite some stiffness and discomfort, Smith said he was "just trying to do whatever it takes to win. I'm the leader of this team."
Tennessee shot 45.1 percent from the field, including a paltry 28.0 percent (7 of 25) from 3-point range. The Vols made just 4 of 11 foul shots and committed 12 turnovers in the first half but bounced back to hit 11 of 15 from the line with only four turnovers after the break. They dominated the backboards 48-35.
Georgia hit 43.8 percent from the field and 40 percent (8 of 20) from 3, with 17 turnovers.
Tennessee returns to action Tuesday night, hosting Kentucky at 9 in Thompson-Boling Arena.