This was a really weird ballgame. Two teams that played to a 46-46 tie at the end of regulation in Athens set the nets on fire in the first eight minutes today. Georgia hit four of their first five threes and built an eight point lead. When the Dawgs calmed down, Tennessee surged to a 30-28 halftime lead. The Dawgs came right back to start the second half and pushed the lead back to seven. But again, Tennessee maintained composure and battled back in front, and had enough to put the Bulldogs away late.
After the first eight minutes, the defense was pretty similar - Georgia shot just 36.4% - and Tennessee's good enough three point shooting (7 of 22, 31.8%) was also familiar. But almost everything else was different, most notably in three ways:
- Skylar McBee got the start for Trae Golden, and it made a difference. While McBee got most of his 10 points on late free throws, Golden came off the pine with a vengeance, scoring 16 points on 5 of 8 shooting to go with 6 rebounds and 5 assists. It was Golden's best game since his 20 point effort in Starkville almost a full month ago. Cuonzo Martin has had great success with changes to the starting lineup.
- Georgia refused to turn the ball over and finished 7 of 15 (46.7%) from the arc. Tennessee's defense held the Dawgs to just 13 of 40 (32.5%) from two, but the lack of turnovers allowed Georgia to attempt thirteen more field goals than the Vols. Not saying it's bad at all, it was just new for us to allow such a high percentage from the arc and force so few turnovers, and still feel like we played good defense.
- Speaking of free throws, Tennessee made their living at the line today. The Vols went 28 of 37 at the line, an impressive 75.7%, and only a few of them were of the garbage time variety. It ties the most free throws the Vols have shot all year, an honor it shares with the double overtime Memphis game in Maui. So for regulation purposes, you have to go back to Belmont in game two of the 2010-11 season to find the Vols shooting more than 37 free throws. Fun stat to watch in the future: the Vols now average 25.8 free throw attempts per game in home SEC play, and just 10.5 free throw attempts in road SEC play. It can't all be the refs, right?
What else was familiar was Jeronne Maymon, 15 points and 8 rebounds. Jarnell Stokes had just 5 points thanks to 3 of 6 at the line, but he just grabs every rebound he can get a digit on, adding nine more today. And Jordan McRae was a big spark off the bench, burying three threes and getting to the rim late in the shot clock to finish with 14.
Something else to watch: the Vols played a nine man rotation tonight, something Cuonzo has long said he wanted to settle on and something that could provide consistency that would serve Tennessee well. Really, it would've been an eight man rotation if not for three minutes for Renaldo Woolridge, who certainly earned them earlier this week. But the Vols are certainly set in the paint with a three man rotation, and look to be settled on Golden, McBee, McRae, Tatum, and Richardson on the perimeter. Finding the right rotation can be a huge key to a team's best basketball.
The win moves the Vols to 11-12 and 3-5 in the SEC. The league finds itself with a huge logjam in the middle after today's action - Kentucky is 9-0 and Florida 7-1, but there are seven teams between 5-3 and 3-5. Again, with no divisional seeding in the SEC Tournament, every game matters and the Vols need to keep moving up the ladder. Right now there's not much difference between third and ninth.
The Vols will return to action Wednesday night at home against South Carolina with a chance to get back to .500 overall before life gets more difficult again (at Florida, Arkansas, at Alabama, Ole Miss). This was a good win today with the same defense, a smaller rotation, and lots of free throws. All of those will continue to serve this team well.