Prince ready to reign?

Even in the midst of a hideous hardwood hangover created by a 85-76 home-floor loss to Vanderbilt, Tennessee basketball fans have one bright spot to cling to:

J.P. Prince is back on his game.

Prince made a quick transformation from role player to star player Wednesday night - putting the Vols on his back and carrying them at times. The 6-8, 208-pound senior hit 9 of 10 floor shots en route to a team-high 22 points. He also grabbed 4 rebounds, dished out 3 assists and made 3 steals.

Are you sitting down? He even made 2 of 2 shots from beyond the arc. Yeah, this was the same J.P. Prince who was a putrid 3 of 24 from 3-point range last season.

"I thought J.P. played terrific," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl said. "It was a special night for J.P. This being Vanderbilt, a home game, the battle for first place ... I thought he really stepped up."

Prince scored six consecutive Vol points in the opening minutes, sandwiching two drives around a tip-in as the home team took a 10-9 lead. Vandy answered with an 8-0 run to go up 17-10 but Tennessee answered with an 8-0 run of its own to move ahead 18-17.

A Prince dunk off a Bobby Maze lob gave Tennessee a 24-23 lead, then he made two key plays just before intermission. The first was a 3-pointer that turned a 30-31 deficit into a 33-31 Vol lead. The second was a beautiful pass to Steven Pearl for a fast-break basket just before the buzzer that gave UT a 35-31 halftime lead and a bunch of momentum.

Picking up where he left off in the first half, Prince accounted for three of Tennessee's first four baskets of the second half - scoring inside, hitting a 3 from the right corner and ramming home a dunk that produced a 44-39 lead with 15:34 to play.

An official decided that Prince hung on the rim a bit too long following the dunk, however, and whistled him for a technical foul. Vandy's ensuing free throws whittled the gap to 44-41.

"The technical foul on J.P.'s dunk at that point was a momentum shifter," Pearl said. "It's certainly a call that can be made because he was on the rim. I've seen that call made; I've seen that call not made."

If the technical foul shifted the momentum, however, it shifted it very briefly. Cameron Tatum scored on an acrobatic inside move and Skylar McBee drained a 3 as Tennessee built its biggest lead of the evening at 49-43 with 14:39 remaining.

The momentum shifted big-time following Prince's next points, however. After he hit a couple of free throws to provide a 53-48 lead with 11:45 to go, Vanderbilt outscored the Vols 26-7 to turn the five-point deficit into a 14-point bulge (74-60) with 4:58 remaining. Tennessee never recovered.

The Vols dominated Vandy in Knoxville during Pearl's first four years at the helm - going 4-0 and winning by an average of 18 points. That made Wednesday night's setback especially hard to swallow.

If there was a positive to be salvaged from the wreckage, however, it had to be the inspired play of J.P. Prince. After scoring 2 points at Alabama and 4 at Georgia in the previous two outings, he came through in a big way Wednesday night vs. Vanderbilt.

"He really, really stepped up," Pearl said, citing "positive energy, a focus, an inner confidence."

Now that Tyler Smith has been dismissed from the program, Prince needs to advance from complementary player to key player on a permanent basis. He took a step in that direction vs. Vandy.

"J.P. is one of our best players now," Pearl said. "He was always a very effective player - an important piece of the puzzle - but now he's one of our best players. I think he's playing like it.

"He's always been a stat sheet-stuffer but now he looks at the roster (minus Smith) and says, 'Hey, I'd better step up and play.'"

Wednesday night vs. Vanderbilt Prince did just that. Whether he can step up in similar fashion against Florida, LSU, South Carolina, Kentucky and the rest of the league remains to be seen. If he does, Tennessee still might contend for the SEC East title. If he doesn't, the Vandy game won't be Tennessee's last home-floor loss.

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