KNOXVILLE – Even when its offense was out of sync, Tennessee kept defending and found ways to get to the free-throw line.
The Vols (7-3) overcame a slow offensive start on Friday night against Western Carolina (4-8) to cruise to a relatively comfortable 66-52 victory over the Catamounts.
“We didn’t make some shots early,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “But we did a good job late in the first half and the second half getting to the free-throw line.”
The Vols made just three field goals in the first half and fell down 16-8 at the 6:05 mark of the first half. That’s when they started penetrating into the lane and getting to the free-throw line. Tennessee hit a total of 16 free throws in the first half, accounting for 73 percent of its first-half total point total of 22. The Vols finished the game with 30 made free throws on 42 attempts, an average of 71.4 percent.
That helped neutralize a pedestrian shooting night. The Vols made 17 of 47 (36.2 percent) field-goal attempts and just 2 of 14 (14.3 percent) from beyond the arc. Starting guards Trae Golden and Skylar McBee had particularly frustrating nights. The duo combined to hit just 3 of 17 attempts from the field and 2 of 9 from 3-point range.
The offensive struggles in the first half were reminiscent of the problems Tennessee dealt with in a 37-36 loss to Georgetown on Nov. 30 and a 46-38 loss to Virginia on Dec. 5.
Martin said he doesn’t want to dwell on those losses or the lackluster offensive efforts in those contests, but he does hope his team took some lessons from them.
"After those games, we spent a long time offensively getting our rhythm in transition, attacking the wings and scoring the ball, but also drive and penetrate and get to the lanes," Martin said. "That's everybody. Even Skylar McBee drove a couple of times. Getting in the lane, forcing officials to make calls. Make that defense go out and find the bodies and give it to shooters."
It’s a lesson that sophomore guard Josh Richardson, who finished Friday’s game with 12 points and five rebounds, said set in with the teams after those frustrating losses.
“Attack the rim,” Richardson said when asked how they were able to get to the free-throw line so many times against WCU. “A lot of the other games we settled for 3s and settled for jump shots. We finally started using our height advantage and getting to the rim.
"Threes aren’t always going to fall and jump shots aren’t always going to happen but you can pretty much book on lay ups and free throws usually. It’s a lot better to know you can get to the line whenever.”
The Vols also took advantage of the Catamounts, who came into Friday’s game having lost three of their last four, on the glass. Senior center Kenny Hall grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds after missing the last game with a tight hamstring. Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes added nine rebounds to go along with his 12 points and two blocks. The Vols held a 45-30 edge in rebounding, including an impressive 15-7 advantage on the offensive end.
“Fifteen offensive rebounds – I think that was a key for us,” Martin said. “They gave up about 13 a game, so we thought we could take advantage of that … I thought Kenny Hall finished the game strong. He started a little slow, getting his legs under him, but I thought he played well.”
The Vols did take advantage of dominating the offensive glass, especially in the second half with eight key offensive boards that helped fuel an 18-2 run that put the game well out of reach for the visiting Catamounts. The Vols took a 47-40 lead with 6:50 remaining. McBee hit his second 3-pointer on his eighth attempt to stretch that advantage to an insurmountable 55-40 at the 4:06 mark.
"We loosened up," Martin said when asked what the Vols did during their huge run. "We made some good shots, attacking off the dribble offensively and making plays. Jarnell was getting offensive rebounds and cutbacks. And defensively, we just got stops. We started getting those stops and cutting off passing lanes and forcing those guys to make one-on-one plays."
It was the fifth time Tennessee held its opponent to under 60 points this season. WCU point guard Trey Sumler (23 points) and guard Brandon Boggs (15) did much of the offensive damage for the Catamounts. The Southern Conference foe shot 37.5 percent from the field and just 16.7 percent from 3-point range.
"I thought Trey Sumler was terrific," WCU coach Larry Hunter said. "When we needed a basket, he was involved in the play, whether it was scoring himself or giving it to somebody. Our guys battled."
UT's players and coaches will get a brief Christmas break before reconvening for practice on Dec. 26 at 6 p.m. to begin preparations for Xavier (7-3). The Vols will play the Musketeers in Knoxville on Dec. 29.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football and basketball for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.