Tennessee passed a big test in its SEC opener.
Now, the eighth-ranked Volunteers will be trying for their ninth straight victory as they visit South Carolina on Saturday.
Tennessee (13-1, 1-0) beat No. 16 Mississippi 85-83 on Wednesday on Tyler Smith’s layup with 4.2 seconds left. The Rebels entered the game as one of just six remaining undefeated teams in Division I.
The Volunteers are off to the second-best start in school history and best since the 2000-01 team started 16-1. Their only loss this season was a 97-78 defeat against then-No. 15 Texas in the championship of the Legends Classic in Newark, N.J. on Nov. 24.
Smith posted a season-best 21 points in Wednesday’s victory and is averaging 13.5 points since transferring from Iowa after last season. He has scored in double figures in nine straight games.
“Tyler Smith is one of the most productive players in college basketball,” coach Bruce Pearl said. “He’s been spending time in the gym working on his 3-point shots. At the end, he did what we wanted him to do, stick it up their noses.”
JaJuan Smith added 21 points for Tennessee, which shot 47.1 percent, including 46.2 percent from the 3-point line. The Volunteers, who lead the nation with 21.1 assists per game and the SEC with 87.2 points per contest, also rank first in the league with 388 3-pointers attempted - but are shooting just 35.6 from beyond the arc, ranking them seventh in the conference.
The Vols are also being outrebounded by an average of 2.6 boards, ranking them second to last in the league in rebound differential. The Rebels outrebounded them 44-39 and scored 23 second-chance points.
“The stat sheet looks awfully good offensively,” Pearl said. “It’s hard to beat opponents though when they get 20 points off rebounds.”
The Volunteers have dropped five of six at South Carolina, including an 81-64 defeat on Feb. 17 in the last meeting. The Gamecocks (8-7, 0-1), who are playing their first conference home game, are 6-3 at home this season but were just 3-5 on their own court against SEC opponents in 2006-07.
“Tennessee is one of the top teams in the country in scoring offense and also forcing turnovers,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom told his team’s official team Web site. “Bruce Pearl has carved out a unique style for his team and they are primed to do great things both in the SEC and nationally.”
The Gamecocks lost 80-73 at Vanderbilt on Wednesday in their conference opener. Devan Downey, who leads the team with 18.8 points per game, had 22, while Zam Fredrick chipped in 21.
Guard Brandis Raley-Ross, who leads the nation with a 65.2 percentage (30-of-46) from the 3-point line, returned after missing two games with a sprained left knee, but played only 9 minutes and missed the only shot he took.
“We gave a really fine effort at Vanderbilt,” Odom said. “We made some mental errors defensively that gave them a few shots they shouldn’t have been able to make.
“We need to do all the things good teams do to protect the basketball. I look forward to the game on Saturday and I’m sure my team does as well.”