NASHVILLE -- It probably won't be good enough today. It almost surely won't be good enough for Saturday or Sunday.
But of the many disadvantages to playing on the first day of the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament, there are some pluses. Tennessee's subpar performance Thursday afternoon was good enough for a 59-49 win over LSU in an orange-partisan Bridgestone Arena.
"The SEC tournament is supposed to be a celebration of our basketball," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "That wasn't a great celebration. ... It wasn't a thing of beauty, but it is called 'survive and advance.'"
The 15th-ranked Volunteers (24-7, 12-5) advanced to today's 3:15 EST quarterfinal game against Mississippi (21-9, 9-7). UT, then ranked ninth nationally, rallied late in Thompson-Boling Arena on Jan. 16 to force overtime and ultimately prevail over the then-No. 21 Rebels. The Vols trailed 52-40 with 9:18 left that Saturday afternoon but surged to the front less than four minutes later and outscored Ole Miss in the extra period.
UT needed a buzzer-beating post bucket from Tyler Smith to beat the Rebels two years ago in Knoxville, and Ole Miss clocked the Vols 81-65 in Oxford last season.
"They were tough down there, they were tough in our house, and they'll be tough in here," UT senior forward Wayne Chism said of the Rebels. "They'd be tough anywhere, so we've got to come ready to play."
Thursday, UT trailed 17-10 after more than 15 minutes against last-place LSU. The Vols started 3-for-17 from the field with eight turnovers before a late flurry tied the score at 21 going into halftime.
The score was again square, at 30, when the Vols briefly surged again. Senior wing J.P. Prince slammed home a perfect lob pass from senior point guard Bobby Maze in traffic to give UT a 46-34 lead with 6:17 left.
LSU never completely faded until the final seconds, though.
Maze went 9-for-10 from the free-throw line in the final 2:02, which helped offset backup point guard Melvin Goins missing the front end of a one-and-one with 55 seconds left.
UT junior center Brian Williams pulled down the biggest of his game-high 14 rebounds moments later. Aaron Dotson missed a point-blank shot that would have gotten the Tigers within 54-51 with 48 seconds left, and Williams emerged from the low block with the ball in his big hands.
"We started rebounding and running better in the second half," Chism said. "That was the difference. LSU fought hard, but we knew we had it when we started rebounding and running better."
But one OK half won't be enough today, Pearl pointed out.
"If we play like this again, we will lose," the coach said.
UT shot 50 percent from the floor after halftime, but that raised the game rate only to 37.3 percent. The Vols had 17 turnovers and shot just 4-for-23 from 3-point range.
Chism shot 6-for-9 from the floor and 2-for-5 from long range. Prince shot 5-for-8 and Williams went 5-for-6. The rest of the Vols shot a combined 5-for-28.
"We missed some shots, and there's not a lot of excitement when everybody out there is missing shots," said Prince, who scored 11 points against the Tigers. "Everybody's out there like, 'Come on, somebody make a shot.' But it's over. We'll make shots tomorrow. I'm just glad we got the rust out. It was a new gym, new balls, new everything. It was ugly for both teams.
"Those rims are different. If the ball hits the rim, it's got no chance of going in. But I'm just glad we survived and get to play another day."
Prince kept that positive vibe going with his next comment.
"It's a big advantage for us, already playing on these rims," he said. "Those Ole Miss guys haven't shot on these rims, and I'm telling you, they're different."
UT sophomore guard Scotty Hopson struggled as much as anyone Thursday. His frustrating afternoon finished with two points -- both from the free-throw line. He shot 0-for-4 behind the arc, and 0-for-4 inside it.
"I'm fine, man," Hopson said. "We won. That's all that ultimately matters. Every day is a new day, and we have more shots to take this season.
"This was just one of those days where you miss shots. We didn't make a lot of shots, but that's going to happen. We're going to regroup and try to come out and shoot better tomorrow."
If the Vols don't shoot any better, another defensive performance like Thursday's might still be enough to overcome Ole Miss. That's Maze's sunny-side-up view, anyway.
"Honestly, I feel like it doesn't matter what percentage you shoot as long as you play great defense and hold the other team down from scoring, too," said Maze, who shot just 2-for-9 against the Tigers. "If you do that, you give yourselves a chance to win.
"We haven't won a tournament championship since I've been here. We're hungry, man ... really hungry. Our guys are going to come out tomorrow with even more intensity for Ole Miss."
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