Randy Sartin-US PRESSWIRE
Behind a career day from Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee bounced back to leave Puerto Rico with a win.
Now that's more like it.
If Friday's loss to Oklahoma State was a glimpse of the Vols at their worst, today's win over UMass was Tennessee's brand of winning basketball: lockdown defense, purpose and balance on offense, and a huge day from your best player.
UMass shot just 35.3% from the floor. The Minutemen hung with the Vols for the first three-fourths of the game, but a 13-0 Tennessee run with the game tied at 54 effectively ended the threat. And as has been the case under Cuonzo's watch, the run was sparked by defense: Tennessee held UMass without a made basket for almost six full minutes during the game's most crucial stretch.
Meanwhile Tennessee had five players in double figures. Skylar McBee paced the Vols early from the outside, Jordan McRae attacked throughout to finish with a dozen off the bench, and Trae Golden shot just 3 of 10 for 11 points but had 6 assists to just a single turnover. Ball movement was better overall with 15 assists on 28 made baskets. While there is certainly still room for improvement, especially with 16 turnovers, the offense did what it needed to do today with precision: the Vols took just 16 threes and made 7 of them, choosing instead to make hay at the free throw line. And unlike Friday, this time Tennessee was the aggressor: 14 free throws for UMass, a whopping 33 for the Vols.
Also a pleasant surprise: Josh Richardson has some offensive game and wants you to know it. JRich took 10 shots and made half of them, and just missed a stunning double-double with 11 points and 9 rebounds. Richardson scored in double figures just twice all of last year. He's already done it twice this year.
But the difference between Tennessee grinding this out and Tennessee imposing its will was Jarnell Stokes, and we hope we get to write that a bunch this year. It's a new career high for the super sophomore: 24 points with plenty of action, 7 of 12 from the floor and 10 of 17 from the stripe. The big fella played 32 minutes and grabbed a dozen rebounds. This was his most complete game as a Vol, and while he'll have even more opportunities once Jeronne Maymon gets healthy, he was plenty good holding down the post game on his own today. He looks much more sure of himself with the ball in the post, and takes post defenders off the dribble more regularly from the high post. This was a polished version of all that freakish freshman stuff we saw last year, and it was very nice.
Tennessee leaves Puerto Rico 2-1 for the weekend and 3-1 overall. UMass should compete in a deep Atlantic 10; this can turn into a pretty nice win for us. The Vols now take eight days off for the Thanksgiving break, returning to action on Monday November 26 against the Oakland team that has beaten us twice in a row. The breathing room in the non-conference schedule doesn't come til mid-December: the Vols will be at Georgetown next Friday, then at Virginia, then home against Wichita State. Not sure Maymon will get healthy in just a week, but the whole team should rest up - it's gonna get real again very quickly.
This was a very welcome and encouraging performance, Cuonzo's Vols winning with their brand of basketball. We'll look for more of that next week, and if Stokes keeps playing that way, look for much more of him on the national radar.