MEMPHIS — John Calipari’s biggest mistake might have come days before the biggest men’s college basketball game in Tennessee history.
J.P. Prince sank two free throws with 8.8 seconds left to lift second-ranked Tennessee to a 66-62 victory over top-ranked Memphis, the team he cheered for as a child in the Bluff City.
Before starring at Memphis’ White Station High School, Prince was a ballboy while his father was a Tigers assistant coach.
It’s probably safe to assume Calipari remembers Prince’s name — he heavily recruited him in high school — but the eighth-year Memphis coach referred to him as "P.J." this week.
That joke "wasn't a good idea," Prince said.
“Coach Cal calling me ‘P.J.’ I took that personally,” Prince continued. “When I heard about that, I called everybody and said, ‘Now I’m ready to go.’
I hope now he can say my name right.”
Prince, a 6-foot-7 southpaw who transferred to UT after spending his freshman year at Arizona, was a 46.7 percent free-throw shooter before Saturday’s game.
“I don’t care about those numbers,” Prince said. “When the game is on the line, I want the ball in my hands. Period. I knew both of those were going in.”
After Prince’s free throws gave UT a 64-61 lead, Vols point guard Ramar Smith intentionally fouled Memphis freshman point guard Derrick Rose, who made his first free throw and missed his second with 4.5 seconds left. The ball bounced out to Vols senior guard Chris Lofton, who made both free tosses with 2.9 seconds left to end the Tigers’ Division-I-leading, 47-game homecourt winning streak.
It should also secure UT’s first No. 1 ranking in history when Monday’s polls are released.
“I’m not going to say this isn’t nice, because it is nice, but we’d rather be No. 1 at the end of the year than now,” Smith said. “But yeah, this nice.”
Added third-year Vols coach Bruce Pearl, the architect of this program’s utterly stunning turnaround: “What a night for Tennessee basketball … University of Tennessee basketball.”
Rose scored a game-high 23 points, and All-America candidate Chris Douglas-Roberts added 14 for Memphis (26-1), the last Division I men’s team to lose a game this season.
Tyler Smith led Tennessee (25-2) with 16 points, while Prince and fellow West Tennessee native Wayne Chism added 13 each.
Memphis overcame a six-point deficit midway through the second half and took a 61-58 lead on a Douglas-Roberts layup with less than three minutes left, but the Vols bounced back with a game-ending, 8-1 run.
Tyler Smith, another Tennessee native and sophomore transfer, powered inside and before spinning and hitting a turn-around jumper to give UT a 62-61 lead with 26.5 seconds left.
“It was tough down there. Those are some big boys,” Tyler Smith said. “I just had to get it done. I had to get that ball through the basket.”
Prince, who scored six consecutive points to start Tennessee’s second-half surge, then rebounded an Antonio Anderson miss before sinking those two huge free throws.
“Free throws are easy when no one’s around,” Ramar Smith said. “But sometimes you’ve got to step up there in a big time situation and be big time. That’s what (Prince) did. He was big time.”
Tennessee’s big finish might not have mattered if Memphis had taken advantage of its hot start from the perimeter. The Tigers led 35-34 at halftime despite making eight 3-pointers and holding Lofton to one point.
“We knew they weren’t going to keep making those 3s,” Ramar Smith said. “We just had to come out and take care of business with defense and rebounding.”
And the Vols did. They outrebounded the larger Tigers, 50-34, and Memphis’ shots stopped falling.
Not for all Memphis players, though. Just the ones wearing blue.
“Memphis is my city,” Prince said. “This is just their school. I wasn’t going to come to my city and walk away with a loss. We’ve got the bragging rights for another year.”