KNOXVILLE – Winless Tennessee State hung with Tennessee early as the Vols continue to try and find their stride before departing for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament next week.
Tennessee wouldn’t let the in-state foes stick around forever, though.
Back-to-back steals by UT freshman point guard Darius Thompson led to a pair of dunks, one by him and another by Jordan McRae, that capped off a 13-3 spurt that gave UT a 26-13 advantage with just under eight minutes left in the first half. TSU never fully recovered as the Vols rolled to an 88-67 victory.
McRae and Thompson were both big factors in the UT win. McRae did it conventionally – scoring a game-high 25 points on 9 of 13 shooting. Thompson, a freshman point guard, contributed in a variety of ways on both ends of the court.
Though he only scored five points, he also contributed four rebounds, five steals and a team-high seven assists. The Vols were plus-24 when the Murfreesboro, Tenn., native was on the floor.
“I thought he did a good job,” coach Cuonzo Martin said of Thompson. “He does a good job even in practice of getting steals. You’re talking bout a guy who’s 6-4, almost 6-5, who has a good feel and anticipates well and uses his frame against smaller guys. I thought he did a good job to get those steals.”
The versatile Thompson gives UT some new options on both ends of the floor. Offensively, the pass-first point guard can play the natural point guard spot and allow senior Antonio Barton to take on more of a shooting guard role. He can also spell Barton and all the while he can guard several positions on the other end of the floor.
Regardless of his role, teammates are enjoying the presence of the freshman.
“It is very exciting to play with him because you never know when you are going to get the ball,” said guard Armani Moore. “You have to always watch him to see what he is going to do. I like how he passes the ball. He is very smart with it.”
“My favorite thing to do is pass,” added Thompson. “I’d rather have 10 assists than 20 points, but that’s just me – most people it’s opposite, but I just like to pass.”
UT’s lead grew to 16 late in the first half, but the Tigers used a 9-0 run of their own to chip away and bring the halftime tally to 38-30 in favor of the Vols. The Tigers clawed to keep it close early in the second half as well, but eventually UT’s depth and athleticism helped the 3-1 Vols start to pull away.
A pair of Jarnell Stokes free throws put UT up by 16 with 13:55 remaining. TSU never threatened from there. UT kept a lead of near 20 for the rest of the night on its way to a comfortable win.
“I thought in the second half, we maintained our level of toughness, executed offensively and made some shots, got some guys to make plays,” said Martin. “We did a few more things with Jarnell and Jordan. They got to the rim and loosened things up. I thought we did a solid job, one of the better jobs we’ve done in transition offensively all season. We capitalized.“
A three-game winning streak over USC Update, The Citadel and TSU might not make national headlines, but it gives the Vols a touch of confidence heading into next week’s tournament in the Bahamas, which will begin Thursday night against UTEP for the Vols.
“Every game and every practice we’re getting a little better,” said Thompson. “We just have to get better and better everyday before we go to the Bahamas and carry that out throughout the season.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga