KNOXVILLE – With Memphis clinging to a quickly evaporating lead, Tennessee sophomore guard Josh Richardson broke free in front of the pack and attempted a thunderous dunk as the orange-clad Tennessee fans cheered furiously.
He missed it.
That’s how it went most of the night for the Vols (8-4). They clawed back from a 42-28 halftime deficit to make it interesting down the stretch, but despite 17 points from Richardson and 24 from guard Jordan McRae, they were unable to close the gap as Memphis held on for an 85-80 win.
“We made some adjustments in the second half, but you have to give [Memphis] credit,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Obviously, they worked on their shots. Those threes, they knocked them down. For us, we take great pride in defending the three and containing the dribble."
The Tigers (10-3) jumped out to an early 8-2 lead and never relinquished their advantage. A 6-0 spurt put Memphis up 27-19 with 4:52 left in the first half. They finished the first half off by scoring on 10 of their last 11 possessions – totaling a 64-percent shooting percentage in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who sat forward Jarnell Stokes for the final 10 minutes of the first half after he picked up second foul, struggled to get consistent stops.
After more of the same in the early second, the Vols, powered by more than 19,000 fans participating in an “orange out” at Thompson-Boling Arena, roared back into contention.
The Vols pushed the tempo and Richardson and McRae especially hit big shots while also attacking the rim more aggressively.
Memphis’ lead grew to 62-41 at the 12:55 mark of the second half before the Vols chiseled away with back-to-back 3-pointers from McRae. Tennessee cut the lead down to 66-60 with 6:47 remaining.
"That has to become who we are on a daily basis - being aggressive, scoring the basketball, attacking the rim,” Martin said of the improved play in the second half. “[Memphis guard] Joe Jackson did a great job getting in the seams and finding guys. We have to have someone get in the seams and find guys.
"I thought that McRae and Richardson were aggressive in finding guys. When we struggle getting production, we have to get that ball in the lane and I think our guys did that in the second half."
Added Richardson on the more aggressive play in the second half: “Coach talked to us and then I pulled the five of us together that were in the game and we said we have to stay in the game. There's a whole lot of time left. We've seen bigger comebacks. We didn't want to give up a loss on our home court.”
But even when the Vols threatened, the Tigers had an answer for every run. They pushed the lead back to 11 with 2:48 remaining and back to eight with 1:24 left.
“It is not easy to score that many points against that good of a defensive team,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “They are an excellent defensive team. Some of our guys made some plays and your offense looks good when you make some shots. Tonight, some of our guys made shots."
Martin looked for the positives for a Tennessee team that finished non-conference play 8-4 and will now turn its attention to SEC action, beginning with a home contest against Ole Miss next Wednesday. Martin liked the way that the frontcourt of Kenny Hall (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Stokes (11 points, 9 rebounds) played together.
Martin singled out the efforts of Richardson, McRae along with backup point guard Brandon Lopez. Without naming names, he also said he needs to see more from some of his other players.
“We came in expecting to win and we lost,” he said. “My biggest concern is that a couple of guys need to play better, and not necessarily in terms of production. We just have to play hard and compete. A couple of guys have to play harder."
• Point guard Trae Golden played with a small brace on his left shoulder, but Martin said Golden's sore shoulder didn’t affect his playing despite the junior guard logging only 23 minutes and scoring four points. "When you step on the floor, it's time to play basketball,” Martin said. “I don't think it was a factor because he wanted to go back in the game."
• Freshman Derek Reese, who scored seven points in his debut against Xavier last Saturday, missed Friday’s game with a sprained ankle. Martin called it a “legitimate” sprain and didn’t give an exact timetable for his return, though he did not rule him out for Ole Miss next Wednesday.
• Martin also said there would be a decision made by Monday on the status of senior forward Jeronne Maymon. Maymon has yet to play this season after sufering a setback in his recovery from knee surgery and will be a candidate for a medical redshirt if the Vols opt to not play him the rest of the year.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football and basketball for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS