KNOXVILLE —Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin must have had had a premonition after watching his team play as flawless a half of basketball as it had all season in the first half against Presbyterian on Tuesday night.
Granted, the opponent was a struggling team in its first season as a full-blown Division I member, but the Vols’ numbers were nevertheless impressive: 48 percent shooting from the field, 50 percent from the 3-point line, nary a miss from the free-throw line (8 of 8), a 26-10 rebounding advantage and nine assists against two turnovers.
All that added up to a 43-13 advantage.
But it was just a little too perfect for Martin, who issued this warning in his locker room at halftime:
“Let’s not let the end score of this game be 75-60,” Martin said.
Little did he know.
Struggling through a second half that was as woeful as the first half was exceptional, the Vols allowed their previously hapless opponents to shot 64 percent from the field, 70 percent from 3 and score 49 second half points. You read that correctly. Forty-nine second-half points.
And the final score? Martin nearly called it: 78-62. Still a win, to be sure, but not exactly Tennessee’s most feel-good outing of the season.
How did the Vols pull off this tale of two halves?
"I think for us it was the ball screen breakdowns,” Martin said. “That's what they went with, they went to attacking off the ball screen, and we didn't do a very good job of standing in front of the ball screen and hedging the ball screen. That was the biggest key.”
Actually, things were still going OK with 14:06 to play in the game, when point guard Trae Golden gave the Vols a 56-25 lead with a 3-pointer. But after that, Tennessee lapsed into what Martin called “mental slippage,” and a “lack of focus,” sas Presbyterian outscored the Vols 37-22 the rest of the way.
Guard Khalid Mutakabbir, the Blue Hose’s leading scorer, was shut out in the first half, but he went off in the second and finished with 18 points.
“He hit some shots and got aggressive,” Martin said. “He's one of those guys who's a rhythm guy, and when he starts making plays, he's very assertive."
Mutakabbir wasn’t the only one. Guard Ryan McTavish tossed in a couple of 3-pointers and scored 10 second-half points, and transfer Jordan Downing, who may wish he would have stayed at Davidson, made three 3s and finished with 14 points.
How did the same players who had been getting regularly bashed by the likes of Clemson (77-44), Georgia Tech (52-38), Creighton (87-58) and Wisconsin (88-43) suddenly resemble the Miami Heat?
"We had a lot of mental lapses out there,” Golden said. “We can't have that happen. We have a lot of veteran guys. We made a lot of mistakes on the ball screens, things that are very fixable. We just have to buckle down.
“I think (the Vols) saw the score and a lot of guys, including myself, let up on the gas, but we can't do that. We have to make sure we are playing the entire forty minutes, and that is something that we have to continue to work on."
Give the Blue Hose and veteran coach Gregg Nibert credit. His team could have stayed down and accepted another beating, but he issued a challenge and some sound advice.
“I said, we aren't going to look up at the score,” Nibert said. “We are going to try and win this half and take it one possession at a time.
“… What we did is, we were a little more aggressive and we made some shots we didn't make in the first half. When you don't make shots it just affects you. On misses they were going all the way to the rim. We were just a little more aggressive on offense and made some shots."
The game wasn’t without its merits. The Vols (6-3), playing without starting forward Kenny Hall, who was resting a sore hamstring, placed five players in double figures, including Jarnell Stokes, who used his considerable size advantage to bust out of a scoring slump. After averaging five points in his previous three games, Stokes finished with 18, to go with seven boards, in 25 minutes. Golden followed with 16 and handed out eight assists and didn’t commit a turnover. And Skylar McBee, the senior guard whose sore elbow might be the reason behind a recent shooting slump, tossed in 4 of 10 3s and finished with 12 points.
The Vols have a couple of days to work on their issues. Western Carolina comes to Knoxville on Friday, and then after that, the schedule gets tough and doesn’t let up until about March. Xavier plays in Knoxville on Dec. 29, followed by Memphis Jan. 4. Then comes the Southeastern Conference grind, and even though the league is a bit down this year, January and February are never easy.
Martin knows what the Vols need to do to avoid lapses. Getting them to do it is another matter, but his track record suggests that his players, sooner or latter, acquiesce to his demands.
"We have to be tough and hard-nosed all the time,” Marin said. “We can't play a glamorous style game and all of a sudden expect to win ballgames. We have to be tough, hard-nosed and physical. We played loose in the second half and that was the result."