KNOXVILLE – Cuonzo Martin took a gamble by switching out of his customary man-to-man defense in an effort to stop the Ole Miss dribble penetration early in the second half.
With the Vols (8-5, 0-1 SEC) trailing 53-45 at the 13:20 mark of the second half, the Vols switched into their seldom-used 2-3 zone.
They didn’t account for Ole Miss’ ace shooter Marshall Henderson enough, though. The SEC’s most prolific scorer, Henderson, despite a slow start behind the arc, knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to extend Ole Miss’ lead to 69-53 at the 9:19 mark. The Rebels (12-2, 1-0 SEC) then poured it on Tennessee on their way to a 92-74 final score.
It was the first time Ole Miss won a game in Thompson-Boling Arena since 1991.
“It was really just really trying to get stops,” Martin said of the decision to give the zone a try in the second half. “They were getting the ball in the lane, I thought (Ole Miss guard) Jarvis Summers was setting the tone in the second half of attacking the rim.
“It was really just trying something different. Really didn’t want to do it, but just wanted to give the guys a chance to cut (the lead). We just didn’t do a good job of boxing out.”
Henderson, who came into Wednesday’s contest averaging 18.2 points per game, finished with a career- and game-high 32 points. He made 13 of 14 free throws, 3 of 12 from behind the arc and 8 of 19 from the field. The 6-2 junior had previous stops at Utah, Texas Tech and South Plains (Tex.) Junior College before transferring to Ole Miss this season.
The Vols had little answer for him. He shot them out of their zone, leaned into fouls in tight man defense, got to the rim and then found open teammates when multiple Tennessee defenders crashed on him.
“Henderson shot the ball well,” Martin said. “Not his 3, but he shot the ball well, shot fakes, up-and-unders. He did a good job of staying aggressive, attacking the rim.”
Added Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes, who had 15 points and 11 rebounds: “We let him get off. We knew he was a good player. We ran him off the 3-point line, which is what we planned to do, but he made plays in the paint and they did a great job rebounding.”
A quick glance at the free throw and rebounding totals showed that Ole Miss was the more physical and aggressive team in this contest. The Rebels made 44 trips to the free-throw line, converting 38 of those attempts. Tennessee shot 26 times from the line, making 17 of them. Ole Miss held a clear edge on the glass, outrebounding the Vols 47-32.
“I thought they did a good job of attacking,” Martin said. “We didn’t do a good job of getting in the lane.”
The loss starts Tennessee out 0-1 in conference play with trips to Alabama and Kentucky looming next on the schedule. But with 17 conference games still to go, Stokes isn’t concerned about mental state of any of his teammates despite the slower-than expected start to the season.
“It’s a learning experience,” he said. “I feel like the SEC has so many evenly-matched teams that if you don’t come with it, guys can get blown out night in and night out. We feel like we can win every game here on out. I don’t think this took any of our confidence.”
• Freshman swingman Derek Reese (ankle) and junior swingman D’Montre Edwards (knee) both made appearances off the bench. Edwards had missed the last two games while Reese missed UT’s contest against Memphis last Friday. Martin said that Reese, who scored seven points, has lost 15 pounds since his shoulder surgery in the preseason.
• Swingman Jordan McRae got his first start of the season after coming off the bench every other game this season. He led the Vols with 26 points, the same total he scored against Memphis on Friday. He replaced guard Skylar McBee.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga