32 made field goals was a season high for Tennessee, but perhaps more importantly they came on 20 assists, a season high by far. For a team looking to turn things around and get everyone involved, a faster tempo created plenty of opportunities and the Vols were willing to share them. So on a night when Jordan McRae scored just 9 points, Tennessee played one of their best games of the year in an 82-67 win over Morehead State thanks to four players scoring in double figures and seven Vols recording at least two assists.
Josh Richardson got the party started, attacking the rim as the Vols pushed the pace and finishing with 19 points on 8 of 13 shooting. Then #23 checked in and I had no idea who he was.
It didn't take long to find out. Derek Reese changed jersey numbers and changed his game, coming out full blast with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks in 19 minutes. The media consensus appears to be that Reese hasn't been playing because his defense was lacking. To be sure, the Vols weren't at their defensive best tonight, as a faster tempo did lead to more opportunities for the other team as well, especially in transition. But Reese's presence on the floor was a huge lift for the whole team. He knocked down a pair of threes but wasn't overly reliant on them, mirroring his teammates: the Vols finished 6 of 12 from the arc and didn't take a single three in the second half until McRae knocked one down in the final minutes. The Vols built a 41-30 halftime lead on 5 of 11 shooting from deep, then played very smart basketball early in the second half on a 14-0 run that erased any doubt.
Morehead State was an exceptionally good offensive rebounding team, but Tennessee put a stop to that behind a combined 29/17 from Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes. The Eagles got the rebound on just 25% of their misses as the Vols dominated the overall margin +21.
There are still some kinks and this wasn't an elite opponent. With a faster pace also came 15 turnovers, five over our season average, and transition defense will need to be addressed going forward. But for the Vols to share the ball this successfully and win this easily while getting a very quiet night from McRae is a good sign for Cuonzo Martin.
It was the win the Vols needed, providing hope along the way that this team might have more firepower in it than we thought. That idea will get put to the test one week from tonight when Virginia's defense comes calling in a very, very important game. Tonight was a step in the right direction. Let's take another next week.