KNOXVILLE – The Vols were scheduled to face Georgia on the lesser-viewed ESPNU late Tuesday evening.
But when a piece of the ceiling fell in Indiana’s Assembly Hall, the Indiana-Iowa game, scheduled to be on ESPN, was postponed. ESPN bumped the Vols and Bulldogs to its flagship station, giving them more of a national stage.
Tennessee enjoyed the spotlight. Especially Jarnell Stokes and Antonio Barton.
The Vols, needing a strong finish down the stretch to make the NCAA tournament after dropping three of their last four, pulled out a convincing 67-48 win over the Bulldogs, a team that came to Knoxville riding a four-game winning streak.
It’s not a game that will vault UT up the rankings, but Tennessee will glady take a 19-point victory over a top-100 RPI team at this point in the season.
UT (16-10, 7-6 SEC) built a 34-28 halftime advantage thanks in large part to its ability to get the ball inside. The Vols scored 20 points in the paint in the first 20 minutes and Stokes got several quality looks inside early and scored 13 of his game-high 20 points in the first half. Stokes also finished with 11 rebounds to notch his 15th double-double of the season.
“The key is always to get [Stokes] the ball,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “It’s no different than any other game. It’s a combination of there were opportunities to get him the ball and he was posting more aggressively.”
“Stokes had a monster game and we tried a number of different things, sent different people at him and he really overpowered us,” added Georgia coach Mark Fox.
Consider it a lesson learned from Saturday’s loss at Missouri. Tennessee’s offense didn’t go through Stokes enough in its 75-70 loss to the Tigers and the Vols suffered. The junior forward didn’t have a field goal attempt in the last 17 minutes of that contest.
“Maybe last game,” Stokes said of why he got more touches against Georgia. “If we didn’t struggle last game, I don’t think I would’ve touched the ball like I did today. I couldn’t sleep, just thinking about [the loss at Missouri].”
An emphatic block by Tennessee guard Armani Moore erased what looked to be a certain bucket by Georgia (14-11, 8-5) with just under one minute remaining in the first half to help preserve Tennessee’s six-point edge at the break.
A Derek Reese 3-pointer at the 14:20 mark of the second half extended UT’s lead to 45-35. Back-to-back 3s by Barton and Richardson then stretched UT’s lead to 57-43 with 7:40 remaining. Barton, who hit just three total 3-pointers in his last nine combined games, finished with four on the night for a total of 12 points.
“It takes us to another level, because now you have five guys out there,” Martin said of Barton’s impact when he’s hitting his shots. “Jeronne [Maymon] and Jarnell do what they do around the rim. Then you have three perimeter guys that can make shots and with the ability to drive the basketball. It just takes you to another level.
“The one thing about Antonio – every morning at 10 o’clock he’s getting shots up. When you put the work in, it eventually start falling for you, so it was just a matter of time.”
As a team, the Vols bounced back from an 18 percent effort from behind the arc in the first half to hit 4 of 7 in the second half.
And despite five straight missed free throws by UT at one point in the final seven minutes, Georgia never truly threatened again as the Vols iced the convincing win away in the closing minutes.
The Vols held Georgia to just 34 percent shooting from the field and won the rebounding battle 37-30, becoming the first SEC team to outduel the Bulldogs on the board this season.
“When you make shots and you make plays and you defend, you give yourself a chance,” Martin said. “That was the biggest key.”
Tennessee travels to face Texas A&M on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga