To say J.P. Prince was an unlikely hero would be a gross understatement. He entered Friday's play averaging just 3.6 points per game and shooting a putrid 34.6 percent from the floor. The 6-8 small forward appeared headed for a dreadful senior season.
"My job is to try to figure out ways to unlock him," head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "I can't sit there and complain about him - 'He's not doing this, he's not doing that.' So what? It's my responsibility to figure out what it is we've got to do to get him to where he can do it."
Pearl and Prince had a brief chat mere hours before tipoff.
"Part of it was just he and I battling with his role, his minutes and things along those lines," Pearl said. "We came to some understanding."
Apparently so. With Tennessee leading just 19-16, Prince came off the bench to score a pair of three-point plays that sparked a 12-2 spurt and widened the gap to 31-18.
Still, Tennessee led just 37-30 at halftime and 51-41 midway through the second half. That's when Prince came to the rescue again. This time he scored on a dunk off an interception, an 18-foot jumper and his 3-pointer to spark a 17-5 spurt that put the Vols on top 68-46 and sealed the deal.
Bobby Maze hit 5 of 9 shots and chipped in 12 points for the Vols, how 7-1.
Tennessee needed good games from Prince and Maze because leading scorer Scotty Hopson (15.7 points per game), managed just 1 point. Second-leading scorer Tyler Smith (13.3) mustered only 7 and third-leading scorer Wayne Chism (11.9) managed 9.
Tennessee shot 50 percent (27 of 54) from the field and 40 percent (6 of 15) from 3 but couldn't pull away until the final minutes.
Desmond Yates was pretty much the whole show for Middle. The 6-7, 225-pound senior scored his team's first 11 points and finished with 26. The rest of the Blue Raiders combined for 28.
"Desmond Yates getting off to such a good start was troubling for me," Pearl said. "I had Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith on him. Those are two of the better defensive forwards in our league, and I don't think those guys did a very good job defensively against him."
The inside guys didn't do a very good job of boxing out, either. The undersized Blue Raiders, now 3-6, broke even (36-36) on the backboards.
Fortunately for Tennessee, its perimeter defense offset the failures of its interior defense. The Vols limited Middle to just 3-of-17 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.
"We did a great job taking their 3-balls away," Pearl said. "Most of the 3s they got were contested."