KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tennessee has already won more Southeastern Conference games than it did all last season. And there is still a month to go.
Behind C.J. Watson’s 18 points, the 13th-ranked Volunteers beat Mississippi 86-72 on Saturday, their fifth straight win that made them 12-0 at home.
The victory helped the Vols (16-3, 7-1) maintain their lead in the Southeastern Conference East division.
Tennessee first turned heads when the Vols won at then-No. 6 Texas on Dec. 17, and first-year coach Bruce Pearl has continued to amaze fans with the success he’s brought following last year’s 6-10 SEC record. The Vols were 14-17 overall.
Even he is surprised.
“We’re better than I thought. We’re 16-3 and in first place right now,” Pearl said. “Who could’ve anticipated the attendance being what it is and the support we’re receiving?”
The end of the SEC slate is more formidable as the Vols still have to play Kentucky twice and go to Florida. Tennessee visits Rupp Arena on Tuesday.
“It’s tough to win on the road in any league. If you can get one and especially in some of the places we have to go to, it separates you because not many people are going to beat Kentucky at Kentucky or Florida at Florida,” he said.
Against Ole Miss (13-8, 3-5), the Vols looked unstoppable in the first half and then vulnerable after halftime.
“Bruce Pearl has done a great job of getting those guys to buy into what he is doing. If we had responded with some intensity and aggressiveness early on, it would have been a much better basketball game,” Mississippi coach Rod Barnes said. “After we got into the flow of understanding how hard they play, we were just too far down.”
Chris Lofton opened the game with a 3-pointer against the SEC’s stingiest defense behind the arc, and Tennessee was off to a quick start. The Vols slightly cooled after halftime, but they put it away with a 10-0 run with 5 minutes left.
The Rebels lost their fifth in a row and had trouble overcoming 22 turnovers that led to 26 points for the Vols. Tennessee had 12 steals in a fast-paced and very physical game.
Clarence Sanders, who scored a career-high 29 points, hit a 3 with 5:14 to go that cut Tennessee’s lead to 12 points. Tennessee then went on the 10-0 run that included a 3-pointer by Watson that came off Lofton’s steal on an inbounds play. Stanley Asumnu followed with another basket to push the lead to 81-59 with 4:28 remaining.
JaJuan Smith added a career-high 17 points for Tennessee, while Asumnu had 14, Lofton 12 and Major Wingate 10.
Watson scored 13 points in the second half and was 3-of-3 on 3-pointers.
Mississippi came into the game leading the league in holding SEC opponents to 27 percent shooting beyond the arc. Tennessee was close to its average by going 7-of-19.
Sanders was 7-of-11 behind the arc, but it wasn’t enough for the Rebels. Todd Abernethy added 14 points and Dwayne Curtis had 10 for Ole Miss.
“Clarence Sanders really was impressive,” Barnes said. “I think he was looking forward to the challenge of playing a Top 25 team.”
The Rebels opened the SEC slate with three straight wins but haven’t won since Jan. 14, against Mississippi State
The Vols were ahead 21-4 with 12:58 left in the first half and pushed the lead to as much as 20 points.
Tennessee didn’t get a field goal in the second half until Dane Bradshaw scored 6 minutes in.