KNOXVILLE – An 11-point halftime lead might not have felt secure enough for a Tennessee squad coming off a two-game losing streak.
So the Vols (7-4) wasted little time putting visiting Morehead State (8-6) away early in the second half on their way to an 82-67 victory on Monday night in front of an announced crowd of just over 15,000 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee went on a 13-0 run to begin the second frame and by the 14:46 mark, the Vols had a commanding 59-36 edge that virtually ended any chances the OVC squad had of pulling an upset. The Eagles didn't get any closer than 17 points until the waning minutes of the contest. At that point it was too late.
"Great team win tonight after coming off of two tough losses mentally and physically,” said UT coach Cuonzo Martin. “I thought our guys did a good job of carrying out our defensive assignments tonight except for maybe three possessions late in the first half. Probably the last two minutes we allowed outside lane drives, but we did a good job of accepting the challenge."
Martin hinted at potential lineup changes after UT’s loss to NC State last week and though the Vols came out with the same starting five, Martin turned to forward Derek Reese for his first minutes off the bench of the season.
The 6-foot-8 sophomore appeared in 14 games as a freshman last season, but hadn’t yet cracked the rotation this year. He gave the Vols some life on offense with 12 points, joining Josh Richardson, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon as the Vols in double figures in the scoring column. Leading scorer Jordan McRae contributed nine points. Richardson recorded one of his career-best efforts as well with his 19 points (8 of 13 shooting), falling just one short of his career high of 20.
Reese finished with a double-double, adding 10 rebounds to his 12 points on 5 of 9 shooting.
"Derek was a guy that I talked to and told him to stay ready because he had the ability to make a shot,” Martin said. “That was his reputation coming out of high school. Now when he is able to make that shot, it is able to stretch that defense out.”
And while Reese’s defense and overall consistency are still works in progress, Martin had seen enough from him in recent practices to give him a shot to spark the team after back-to-back losses to NC State and Wichita State.
“I knew I was going to be the type of person that had to keep working,” Reese said. “I kept working hard and praying. That motivated me to work hard every day. I listened to Coach Martin. He said he wanted to see more consistency with me in practice. So I just keep working at it in practice."
Tennessee also controlled the glass, posting an impressive 49-28 edge in rebounding to a Morehead State team that had outrebounded every other opponent this season.
MSU forward Chad Posthumus, the nation’s second-leading rebounder coming into the contest, was held to just five boards.
“They wanted to concentrate on making sure Chad didn't have a great rebounding night and they did a couple of things to keep him away from the basket, I thought that was key,” added MSU coach Sean Woods, a former Kentucky player.
The Vols will have a few days off for Christmas before reconvening on Dec. 27 to continue preparations for Virginia (Dec. 30.).
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga