Halfway home Tuesday night against visiting Presbyterian, Cuonzo Martin warned his Tennessee team about what he did not want to see.
"I told our guys at the half, 'Let's don't let the score at the end of this game be 75-60,'" Martin shared.
Added junior college transfer D'Montre Edwards, "Yeah, he told us that. And sure enough, me and a couple of guys were talking and it's almost like coach is a psychic because he called it.
"He was just like 'Great first half,' but like I said, he just wants us to keep a team in the doghouse when we have them in the doghouse and continue to compete."
One of the best defensive halves of the Martin era, as well as solid shooting and dominant rebounding, was plenty enough to gloss over one of Martin's worst-ever defensive halves in Tennessee's 78-62 win Tuesday night against visiting Presbyterian. It was the second-straight win for UT, which is trying to seize upon a six-game homestand that includes upcoming games against Xavier (Dec. 29), Memphis (Jan. 4) and the SEC-opener against Ole Miss (Jan. 9).
The Vols (6-3) cruised to a suffocating 43-13 lead at the break inside Thompson-Boling Arena and then saw the Blue Hose (2-9) outscore them 49-35 across the final 20 minutes to narrow a deficit that twice swelled to 34 points, the last time 50-16.
Presbyterian then outscored its hosts 46-28 during the final 17 minutes, 19 seconds.
"The mental slippage, the lack of focus on finishing the game and not making it an offensive shootout," Martin said. "That's the result."
Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes led a quintet of Vols in double figures with 18 points, hitting six of nine field goals and each of his six free throws. Trae Golden, named the SEC's player of the week on Monday, followed up his 25-point outburst against Wichita State with 16 more along with a sparkling eight assists against zero turnovers.
Skylar McBee and Jordan McRae each added a dozen points while Edwards rounded out the balanced attack with 11. The Vols also outrebounded the Blue Hose, 42-22, and converted 13 of 16 free-throw attempts.
"It's huge, I mean I see it all day in practice," Golden said. "Skylar's got his confidence up and Montre has been shooting the ball well. I'm the type of guy that I keep telling them 'Shoot the ball. Shoot the ball. You're open.' Skylar has a lot going on with elbow, so it's good to see him knocking down those kinds of shots. It's huge. And Montre he comes off the bench and really gives us an extra boost. It's huge for us."
Tennessee seized its first double-digit lead, 15-5, on the second of McBee's four threes just eight minutes into the contest and had more than doubled that edge, 30-9, less than seven minutes later. The Blue Hose had a scant three field goals during the first 13 minutes of the opening half.
The Vols, who continue this home stand Friday against Western Carolina at 7 p.m., then scored the final eight points of the half, the last of them coming on Golden's jumper at the top of the key in the waning seconds, for a 43-13 edge.
But after limiting Presbyterian to just 23.1 percent first-half shooting (6-for-26), the Vols saw their guests connect on 18 of 28 second-half shots, including seven of 10 3-pointers.
Martin said he believed in the Vols' offense, which has bounced back nicely in these two home wins with 69 and 78 points, respectively, but challenged his team to keep the defense present from beginning to end.
"I thought our guys did a tremendous job in the first half of being in tune and carrying out assignments. I think in the second half it never fails that slippage. Just that mental maturity of taking the next step in the game and not taking it for granted," Martin said. "It's just the steps you have to take as a team. Once again, it's a valuable lesson.
"We have to be tough and hard-nosed all the time. We can't play a glamorous style game and all of a sudden expect to win ballgames. We have to be tough, hard-nosed and physical. We played loose in the second half and that was the result."
Khalid Mutakabbir, held scoreless in the first half, paced Presbyterian with 18 points while Jordan Downing connected on four of his five 3-point attempts in adding 14 for the Blue Hose.
Tennessee played without senior post Kenny Hall, who is nursing a sore hamstring. Martin said under more pressing circumstances Hall might have been able to go.
"I think he's fine. I think if we needed him in the worst way, I would have played him," Martin said. "It was probably best to keep him out and let the hamstring rest up.
"We'll see (if Hall can go Friday against Western Carolina); I'm not sure yet. That's the trainers call. We'll see how Kenny is feeling. He's able to shoot the ball, but he's not mobile."