When Tennessee roared to a 43-13 halftime lead Tuesday against Presbyterian, athletics director Dave Hart left his courtside seat and took the rest of the night off. Apparently, so did several Vols.
After limiting the Blue Hose to 23.1-percent shooting (6 of 26) in the first half, Tennessee allowed the visitors to shoot 64.3 percent (18 of 28) in the second half. That enabled Presbyterian to turn a budding blowout into a respectable 78-62 setback.
Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin saw it coming. He warned his players at halftime that they needed to maintain their defensive intensity for 20 more minutes so the outcome would never be in doubt.
“Coach said 'Don't let it be 75-60,'” Tennessee reserve D'montre Edwards recalled. “It was almost like he was a psychic. He called it.”
Martin may have called it but the Vols were the ones who squandered much of a 34-point bulge after pushing the lead to 47-13 two minutes into the second half. They allowed Presbyterian to get a few good looks and hit a few buckets. Suddenly, the Blue Hose had momentum. Hitting 14 of their first 20 shots of the second half, they trimmed the lead to 69-51 with 6:28 to play.
Edwards hit a jumper at this point, then Skylar McBee and Jordan McRae added 3-pointers to slow Presbyterian's rally and close the deal.
Incredibly, the Blue Hose scored 49 second-half points after managing just 13 first-half points.
Junior point guard Trae Golden said Tennessee's big mistake was allowing the visitors to get some confidence.
“As an offensive player you get your head up when you hit a couple of shots, and it's easy to get going and keep that momentum,” he said. “We just had some lapses and things that we know can't happen.”
But they did happen – not in the first 20 minutes but often in the final 20 minutes.
“The second half we played horrible defense,” Vol sophomore Jarnell Stokes said. “That's not how we play defense. I think we just let up on 'em.”
Edwards agreed, noting: “Coach said we played a great first half. He just wants us to keep a team in the doghouse when we have 'em in the doghouse … continue to compete.”
One Vol who completed throughout the game was Stokes. The 6-foot-8, 270-pounder hit 6 of 9 shots from the field and 6 of 6 from the foul line en route to 18 points. That was three more points than he scored in the previous three games combined.
“It was pretty good for me to finally play good,” Stokes said. “I felt like the last three games I didn't play to the level I could've played at. It was good to have the outside-inside presence. I think we really needed that from the standpoint of the guards to get going … a couple of shots going in.”
Indeed. After making just 8 of 45 shots from 3-point range in the previous three games combined, Tennessee made 9 of 22 tries (40.9 percent) on this night. McBee hit 4 of 10 and McRae 2 of 3. Each finished with 12 points. Edwards came off the bench to make 2 of 4 treys en route to a career-high 11 points.
The Vols, now 6-3, also got a strong offensive effort from Golden, who finished with 16 points, 8 assists and 0 turnovers.
Other positives: Tennessee shot a season-high 81.3 percent (13 of 16) from the foul line, won the backboards 42-22 and committed just six turnovers, lowest total of the Cuonzo Martin era.
Khalid Mutakabbir scored 18 points to pace Presbyterian, now 2-9.
Because 6-foot-9 senior Kenny Hall was sidelined by a hamstring pull, the 6-foot-5 McRae joined the starting lineup. With Stokes being the only “big” on the floor for Tennessee most of the game, Presbyterian crowded him all night.
“It's definitely harder (without another big man on the floor),” Stokes said. “You know the double-team is coming, sometimes the triple-team. I think I'm getting used to it. I'm learning but it definitely affected me.”
The Vols return to action Friday, hosting Western Carolina at 7 p.m.