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Why can’t Tennessee put teams away? Here’s how Rick Barnes explained it

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee escaped Vanderbilt last night, allowing a huge comeback which put the game in jeopardy in the final five minutes. They found a way, but that routine is growing stale as the season marches on.

“Vanderbilt isn’t an easy out for anybody. We know that — or we should know that,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I’m just disappointed in the second half.”

Tennessee jumped on Vanderbilt, building a 20 point lead behind the hot shooting of Jordan Bowden and physical presence of Grant Williams. The Volunteer defense limited the Commodores to 1-13 shooting from three point range in the first half.

That all changed when senior guard Riley LaChance got hot, hitting four three pointers in a five minute span to bring Vanderbilt (almost) all the way back.

When asked what happened in the second half, Barnes pointed to the differing aggression levels. “We held the ball too much. When they were making their push to get back in it, they were very aggressive. We were just walking it up and acting like we wanted to play a half-court game. That’s not when we are at our best.”

This has become an all too familiar theme of the season. Tennessee typically starts well, but goes through a lull at some point in the second half. This is big time college basketball — everyone is going to make a run — but it happens far too often for the Volunteers. Look no further than the North Carolina, Villanova and Arkansas losses for evidence.

“I don’t want to say we let them — they got back in the game,” Barnes said. “But at the end we found a way. Lamonte Turner’s shot was a big one. Over the past couple of years we’ve let games like this get away.”

“Finding a way” has become the motto of this group. They’re a tough out, usually because Grant Williams can get whatever he wants down low late in games against tired defenses.

“The last couple of minutes, we knew what we were going to do. We got the ball to Grant and played through him.” Barnes did seem pleased with his team’s execution in the final minutes as they were able to do just enough to hang on.

And Barnes is right. Over the past two seasons, games like this have slipped through Tennessee’s fingers. There’s something to be said about finding a way more times than not, but still — they seem to make it more difficult than it has to be.

“The word I want to see is consistency. What are we gonna get? It’s more of a mindset as much as anything,” Barnes said.

At the end of the day, you’ll take the wins. But thinking ahead to March, you just get the feeling that Barnes and his staff are going to have to find a way to keep the intensity up for the full 40 minutes. This roster is too talented to be unable to step on teams’ throats mid-way through the second half.

When you think about it, Tennessee’s wins against Wake Forest and Texas A&M were just about the only times where the Vols comfortably put a game on ice (against a decent opponent). That’s the main area where I would like to see progress as the SEC schedule lightens up a little.

Tennessee will be back in action on Saturday afternoon against Iowa State, who currently sits dead last in the Big 12 standings.