KNOXVILLE – Trailing by as many as 17 in the first half, it looked like Tennessee might get run out of its own building by the visiting NC State Wolfpack on Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee clawed back, however. A steal and coast-to-coast play by freshman point guard Darius Thompson pulled the Vols back to within 48-43 at the 8:22 mark of the second half, briefly bringing a quiet home crowd of over 14,000 to life.
But in the end, the early difficulties were too much to overcome. Tennessee (6-4) never got closer than that five-point deficit over the final eight minutes and dropped their first regular-season home game since Feb. 6, 2013 by a final margin of 65-58.
“Tough loss,” said coach Cuonzo Martin. “Got off to a slow start – dug ourselves a hole. Didn’t think we played well on either end in the first half. Did a better job in the second half – thought our effort was better in the second half. Give those guys credit for coming in and competing and getting the win.”
“We’re up 17 at the half, but you know they’re not going to go away,” added NC State coach Mark Gottfried, a former Alabama coach. “Twenty minutes is a long time. I thought when they made their run, we had poise, we executed when we had to, we made some stops at key times. We were able to withstand it.”
The Vols hit just 7 of 29 shots from the field in the first half as NC State (8-2) built its substantial lead. Tennessee didn’t hit its first 3-pointer until the 15:35 mark of the second half.
NC State cooled off from its 50 percent shooting in the second half, but the ACC squad withstood the UT rally with timely shooting and a few key defensive stops. The Vols were clearly a different team in the second half – playing with much improved effort and energy.
“We always look like a different ball club in the second half,” said senior forward Jeronne Maymon, who recorded 17 points and 16 rebounds. “We always hold teams to lower amounts of scoring and the percentages drop dramatically. We just have to do that in the first half.”
Star NC State forward T.J. Warren, an NBA prospect, paced the Wolfpack with 21 points and 11 rebounds – a double-double. Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes also hit double figures in both categories, recording 10 points and 13 boards.
Even with the better effort in the second half, the Vols finished the game shooting just 29.4 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from behind the arc. Senior guard Jordan McRae contributed 21 points on an inefficient shooting night. He hit just 6 of 22 from the field and 3 of 12 from 3-point territory.
“I have got to do a better job of trying to get everyone involved,” McRae said. “Like I said, I’m taking a lot of shots and we are still losing.”
“It would definitely lighten the load on the inside,” Maymon said of the team’s outside shooting. “But our guards are going to get back into the gym. They aren’t the reason we lost this game, though. We lost this game because we didn’t have energy and NC State was a better team tonight.”
Tennessee, a squad with NCAA tournament aspirations this season, now finds itself in an all-too-familiar situation. The Vols have just one non-conference game remaining against a major opponent (Virginia, Dec. 30) and are running out of early-season opportunities to put themselves in position themselves for a tournament spot.
“We always have slow starts in the year and this year we were trying to get off to a fast star,” Maymon said. “It’s nothing new, you know, still a lot of ball games to be played and still have to take it one game at a time.”
Martin said there will be no need for any drastic overhaul of the team, but did acknowledge that the lineup will be evaluated and that he will continue to consider what his team can do better in the face of a slower-than-expected start.
Tennessee returns to the court Monday night for its final pre-Christmas contest against Morehead State.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga