KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was shaking his head in disbelief as he drove into a Saturday afternoon game against Belmont.
"I heard some guys on the radio talking about this game being a blowout," Pearl said after the Vols (No. 19 ESPN/USA Today, No. 16 AP) held on for a hard-fought 79-77 victory. "Maybe they think too much of our team. More likely, I think they don't respect the opponents."
That's dangerous when you're playing the Bruins, and Pearl made sure his team knew it.
"This is a team that had Duke beat in the NCAA tournament last year," Pearl said. "This team beat Alabama and Cincinnati on the road [last year]."
The Bruins, returning four seniors and nine of their top 11 players, almost added the Vols to their list of upsets.
Tennessee (8-2) played well in stretches, but it took a key 3-pointer late from Bobby Maze and three missed free throws by Belmont in the final 7.9 seconds to help the Vols survive.
Tennessee got a season-high 23 points and eight rebounds from Tyler Smith.
"We knew this team would be tough," Smith said. "They have some shooters and before you know it you're down five or six points."
The biggest problem the Vols had was stopping Belmont guard Alex Renfroe, who sliced his way down the lane at will and torched the Vols for a career-high 30 points.
"That's the fastest guard I've ever played against," Tennessee forward Wayne Chism said.
Renfroe carried Belmont until the closing seconds, when he missed three of his final four free throws that would have given the Bruins a chance.
"I guess those last two visits to the free-throw line, it just seemed to get a lot louder in there, like some people had just shown up," Renfroe said. "I guess that kind of rattled me a little bit. Next time I'm going to be ready for that."
Tennessee managed to take two of three victories during its latest stretch of tough non-conference games, losing to Temple and rallying past Marquette and Belmont.
"It was a scary game that a lot of people try to stay away from," Pearl said of the Bruins.
Maze added 13 points for Tennessee and junior forward Wayne Chism added 12 rebounds.
It was a tough way to make a homecoming for Belmont coach Rick Byrd, a 1976 graduate of Tennessee got his first coaching job as a student assistant under former Vols coach Ray Mears.
"The Duke game last year was a phenomenal experience for us, but this is a really, really hard team to beat in here," Byrd said. "We had more than a fair chance to do it, and it's just disappointing when you don't close it.
"I'm not disappointed in our players. I'm not disappointed in our effort. I'm not disappointed in anything about them, I'm just really disappointed in the outcome."
In a well-played game that featured only 15 total turnovers (seven by Belmont), both teams made key runs. The Bruins cut a 75-69 deficit to one with 2:10 remaining, but Maze buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the 1:48 mark to give the Vols a 78-74 cushion.
Renfroe twice had chances to tie the game late, but made just one free throw with 7.9 seconds left to make it 78-77. He then missed two -- one intentionally -- with 1.3 seconds remaining.
"I'm disappointed for Alex Renfroe," Byrd said. "He played a phenomenal game and has worked on his free throws so much."
The Bruins entered the game ranked third nationally in 3-pointers per game with 11.5, but were held to 9-of-22 shooting behind the arc.
"We wanted to take away their shooters, and we did, but Renfroe just kept penetrating on us," Smith said.