Tennessee played what might have been its worst game of the season on Tuesday in a home loss to Auburn. Tonight, the Vols responded with what might have been their best game of the season in a 76-65 win over Kentucky. Here are four takeaways from a much needed win.
1 — Man, this showed some grit — Kentucky looked like it was in the process of taking control of the game at halftime. Tennessee didn’t make a shot in the final 4:04 of the half, allowing the ‘Cats to build a 37-29 lead and seemingly take all the momentum into the break.
At that point cared for Tennessee’s chance about as much as I care for cauliflower, but they surprised me. (cauliflower has never surprised me)
Tennessee flipped a switch after the half and it was apparent from the first moments of play. The Vols started out with a 6-0 spurt that immediately got Kentucky’s attention and had them on their heels.
Unlike some rallies, this one didn’t run out of steam. Tennessee was so much more aggressive, so much smarter in the second half that it didn’t look like the same team.
The Vols outscored Kentucky 47-28 in the second half, a remarkable turnaround.
Tennessee had just four turnovers in the second half compared to nine for Kentucky, showing so much more composure than the visitors that it was blatantly obvious.
Most rewarding of all for fans, and probably for Rick Barnes, is that Tennessee finally got over the hump in a tight game against a quality opponent.
Kentucky never threatened to manufacture a comeback in the final five minutes. To their credit Tennessee didn’t give them any openings to exploit whatsoever. The Vols took care of the ball, kept playing sound defense and handled their business at the free throw line.
2 — Length can be a real problem for this team, but they overcame it tonight — This isn’t exactly a newsflash, but Tennessee has real problems with teams that have the kind of length Kentucky is able to put on the floor.
That’s because everything on offense goes through their undersized four-man, Grant Williams, and when he struggles as he did early tonight, everything becomes tough on the offensive end.
Williams, the Vols’ leading scorer, didn’t score a point in the first 17 minutes of the game tonight, going 0-4 from the floor and managed just a pair of free throws in the first half.
On the other end of the floor Kentucky scored seemingly every time they got the ball inside in a good spot, in the first 20 minutes. The Wildcats shot a scorching 56% in the first half, largely as a result of Tennessee simply not being able effectively contest shots at the rim.
Williams turned things around in a MAJOR way in the second half, putting the Vols on his back and carrying them to a win with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, but he got very little help in there in terms of offense.
Kentucky dominated the Vols inside early on, outscoring them 22-6 in the paint in the first half. Thanks to Williams, Tennessee completely turned that around in the second half, outscoring the ‘Cats 22-10 in the paint.
Additionally the Vols won the battle of the boards 37-30, something few would have considered likely on the front end of this match-up.
3 — Guard play shows up in second half — Tennessee’s guards didn’t have a prodigious night in the scoring column but they played some smart, tough basketball, especially in the second half.
Jordan Bone has battled the flu this week and was limited to just nine minutes and only two of those came in the second half. That meant a lot of James Daniel and Lamonte Turner as the Vols’ primary ball-handlers, and the duo came through with flying colors.
Daniel finished with a team-high six assists and just one turnover in 27 minutes. Turner had five assists and just one turnover in 30 minutes. Daniel didn’t commit a single turnover in 16 second half minutes.
Most impressive of all was the manner in which the Vols played offense in the second half. Due to foul trouble Kentucky played a great deal of zone and Tennessee just sliced it up with ball movement and some really nice high low work between Williams and John Fulkerson.
After the break the Vols just didn’t rush on offense. They were patient in the extreme, moving the zone around and constantly making the extra pass.
How good were the guards after halftime? In the second half Tennessee made 17 shots and 11 of those shots were the result of assists. It was a beautiful example of the Vols making some adjustments and the proof was in the numbers. Tennessee shot just 33% in the first half but turned that around to the tune of 55% in the second half.
4 — Best things I saw tonight — Williams was a stud in the second half, but we’ve already touched on that. We've also mentioned the Vols' guard play and ball movement. So we need to make sure we give Admiral Schofield some props for what may have been his best game in Orange considering the stage.
Schofield led the Vols with 20 points and nine rebounds. He was crucial in the first half, scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting when the rest of the Vols were struggling to get anything going on offense.
Schofield shot 8-of-13 from the floor, was an efficient 3-of-7 from three-point range and grabbed three big offensive rebounds in the second half.
The junior can swing between being productive and invisible from one game to the next but his contributions were crucial tonight. If he doesn’t show up and find his groove on offense in the first half the Vols would have been in danger of being down 15+ at the break.
Lastly, let’s make sure John Fulkerson gets some credit. He played a season high 19 minutes tonight and while he didn’t put up huge numbers, his play was an enormous part of the Vols second half surge.
He finished with three points, three rebounds and three assists but don’t discount that stat line.
His ability to work in the high post and find Williams down low for easy buckets on the baseline against Kentucky’s zone was pivotal.
Three times those passes resulted in lay-ups for Williams, but more than the six points his play in the high post moved the zone around and ended up helping to create all kinds of open shots that the Vols took advantage of.