KNOXVILLE – Leading by just one point at the break, Tennessee appeared to be in for a 40-minute battle against OVC foe Tennessee Tech.
The Golden Eagles came out firing early, hitting 8 of 10 from 3-point range in the first half to make for an intriguing start Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Poor defense – that’s all,” Martin said of what led to TTU’s hot shooting start. “They like to shoot a lot of 3s. We played on our heels early in the game. It was nothing but poor defense.”
“They were getting spot-up shots,” added UT guard Josh Richardson. “We were losing our man. They did a good job by capitalizing off of every one of them.”
But then Tennessee (6-2) showed why it was the heavy favorite in the second half. The Vols used a 22-1 run in the first 10 minutes of the second half to build a commanding lead that reached into the 20s. Tech (5-6) couldn’t duplicate its hot first-half shooting and UT ran away with a 84-63 non-conference win.
Tennessee’s second-half performance was what most were expecting for the entire game. The Vols held Tech to just 38.5 percent shooting from the field and 22 percent from 3 in the second half while also winning the rebounding battle 23-15.
“The intensity of the game changed a lot,” Richardson said of the Vols’ early second-half run. “They called a couple of timeouts, and in the huddle, I was making a point that they hadn’t scored much to start the half so we had to keep putting pressure on them.”
“I thought we did a good job just setting the tone defensively in the second half,” Martin said. “I thought we had great energy.”
Forward Jarnell Stokes recorded his fourth straight double-double with 19 points and 13 boards. The Vols also got double-digit scoring efforts from Jeronne Maymon (13), Jordan McRae (16) and Richardson (13).
“When Jarnell’s aggressive, he plays well whether he’s making or missing shots,” Martin said. “When he’s aggressive and attacking the rim – assertive – he’s going to have success.”
In a surprise starting lineup move, freshman swingman A.J. Davis got the nod over Maymon, but Maymon, a fifth-year senior, played a majority of the minutes, recording 22 on the court as opposed to 12 for Davis. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Davis got the start because Maymon was late showing up to the game.
Tennessee got quality minutes from reserve Armani Moore, who recorded five points, six rebounds and two blocks in 16 minutes of action. Though he’s been somewhat of an odd man out of the rotation in some recent games, the sophomore made a case to stay in the lineup with his effort on Saturday.
“He’s spent hours working on his shot, attacking the rim, making his layups,” Martin said of Moore. “When he’s making his free throws, he has to be on the floor. He’s a guy who brings a level of toughness to our team, energy and passion – he plays hard.
“We said all the time as a staff, we have to figure out a way to get Armani on the floor because of what he brings to the team and you saw that tonight. To his credit, he stays ready and continues to work on his game. He doesn’t mope about it. He capitalized on his opportunity.”
The Vols have a week off before returning to action next Saturday at No. 11 Wichita State.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga