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Barnes praises defense, Vols’ ability to ‘find a way’ following win over Georgia Tech

It was ugly, but it happens.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a week before Tennessee’s first true test against the Louisville Cardinals, Tennessee got stuck in a rock fight. It was an ugly, physical slobber-knocker on Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena against Georgia Tech.

Even though the offense was stagnant and the open shots weren’t falling, the game was never really in doubt. Georgia Tech was only able to cut the lead to seven points, but Tennessee found some sort of answer every time they needed one.

“Tough game,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said after the game. “I thought both teams played really hard on the defensive end, and as we knew we’d be in long possessions. I didn’t think our offensive execution was very good. Sometimes you just have to find a way to grind it out defensively and that’s what we did tonight. I told our guys before there are some nights the ball isn’t going to go in and you have to find a way to be in some of those games.”

This was without a doubt one of those nights. Tennessee shot 39 percent from the field, despite getting some decent looks from the floor. The Vols’ defense picked up the slack on the other end, holding Georgia Tech to just 27 percent shooting.

Barnes singled out two players for their efforts on the defensive end.

“I thought Kyle Alexander was terrific, his ball screen defense was good, and he had as tough a job on the floor as anyone, with their motion he had to help with cutters and deny his man the ball, because they play through the elbows so much,” Barnes said. “I thought John Fulkerson, energy again, put us through there. I thought Fulky’s blocks and his energy really helped.”

Tennessee contested everything on Tuesday night. Nothing came easy, especially down low. It was a necessary effort too, because Josh Pastner’s group was pretty clearly going to foul — and foul hard — rather than let Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander beat them up on the inside.

With a number five sitting beside their name, the Vols can expect these types of efforts from their opponents going forward. They won’t be sneaking up on anyone like the beginning of last year.

“I said, you guys don’t think that people will give you those herculean type efforts, now you’ll find out,” Barnes said. “If we’re smart, it will make us better. It will make us better if we embrace it and know it will make us better. Whether they believe it or not, they’re going to find out it is real. People are going to come at them.”

Tennessee now has a week to get ready for a trip to Brooklyn. They’ll get Louisville on Wednesday afternoon, then face Marquette or Kansas on Friday, depending on Wednesday’s results.