KNOXVILLE – Rumors of a potential starting lineup switch didn’t come to fruition for the Vols on Saturday afternoon against Mississippi State.
That didn’t stop a few of Tennessee’s (9-7, 1-3 SEC) bench players from making an impact.
Guard Armani Moore pulled down 11 rebounds, guard Trae Golden scored 10 points and dished out nine assists and swingman Derek Reese hit a trio of 3-pointers in the second half to help lift the Vols to a 72-57 victory over the Bulldogs (7-9, 2-2 SEC) in front of just over 17,500 in attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I thought Armani played a really good game – 11 rebounds, eight at the half,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He just does a good job handling the ball, making decisions. He’s a physical guard.
“Derek came off the bench and shot the ball well.”
The Vols got plenty of contributions from their starters as well. Forward Jarnell Stokes, who combined for just 10 points and 12 rebounds in his last two contests, had a double-double with 18 points and 11 boards. Josh Richardson scored seven of the game’s first eight points on his way to 16 total. Jordan McRae added 12 points.
Tennessee found much-needed balance in the win. It relieved some of the offensive pressure off of McRae, who had averaged 24 points per game during Tennessee’s four-game losing streak coming into Saturday. Golden, Stokes, McRae and Richardson all scored at least 10 points.
“I thought we did a great job of scoring off of turnovers – being aggressive on defense, really doing a good job of pressuring, not getting off balance, containing the dribble,” Martin said.
Added Stokes: “I feel like when Trae, Jordan and I get going on the offensive end, it’s hard for teams to try to stop us and it’s hard for us to lose. One thing we haven’t done is all three of us playing well in the same game.”
The Vols got limited contribution from starters Skylar McBee (3 pts.) and Kenny Hall (0 pts, 2 rebs.), further fueling speculation that the two could be yanked from the starting five as the Vols continue in SEC play.
Even without much help from Hall, the Vols still dominated the paint, wining the rebounding margin 37-32 and holding a 42-16 edge in points in the paint. Stokes got the best of MSU’s celebrated freshman center Gavin Ware, who was thought to be a tough match for Stokes with his 6-9, 270-pound frame.
The Bulldogs were led by Knoxville native Jalen Steele, who paced them with 15 points on 6 of 10 shooting from the floor despite missing much of the second half with a leg cramp. Former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl recruited Steele when he was a standout at Knoxville Fulton High, but never offered the 6-3 guard a scholarship.
“He’s a local kid that came home and played well,” Martin said. “Not sure if he got hurt in the second half, I didn’t see him as much, which was probably a good thing. I just wanted to acknowledge the fact that he did a great job coming out and shooting the way he did.”
Though a win over the Bulldogs might not count as a season-changing effort for the Vols, the improved play of Stokes and Golden, combined with the emergence of Reese and Moore, bodes well for Tennessee’s chance at mustering a run in SEC play.
Moore, in particular, is emerging as a valuable member of Tennessee’s rotation on both sides of the court. The freshman out of Kennesaw, Ga. had the most rebounds (11) by a UT guard in a game since Scotty Hopson grabbed that many in a 2010 contest against Virginia Commonwealth.
His thunderous block, which launched the ball into the stands, at the 4:54 mark of the first half brought the crowd to its feet.
“Coach Martin has always told me to just go out there, rebound, defend and play hard; then I will stay on the floor,” Moore said.
And while Moore’s rise could be a nice boost for the Vols, it’s Golden who Martin thinks needs to continue to progress to get the Vols back in contention in the SEC race.
“I think in order for us to be successful we need Trae Golden as our point guard on a consistent basis,” Martin said.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga