The Murray State Racers didn’t come to Knoxville to mess around on Tuesday night. In just their second game without Ja Morant, Murray State rolled into Thompson-Boling Arena and punched Tennessee in the mouth.
The long-ball was dropping for the Racers, who jumped out to a 26-18 lead in the first 12 minutes of the game. Murray State was hitting 55 percent from three-point range, and the Tennessee offense simply couldn’t keep up early on.
There were plenty of dead moments for Rick Barnes’ team in the first half. The Vols struggled to find any rhythm, but were kept afloat by a few three-pointers from Yves Pons. Zach Kent also hit a three to keep Tennessee breathing.
But Murray State didn’t cool off. It was Tevin Brown, K.J. Williams and Jaiveon Eaves raining triples in the Tommy Bowl — and Tennessee didn’t seem to have an answer.
The lead got up to 12 points with two minutes to play in the first half. The Tennessee offense actually jolted into gear to end the half, but the Vols couldn’t get a stop on the other end.
At halftime, the Murray State lead was 44-35. Their 57 percent three-point shooting couldn’t continue, right? Even more concerning for Tennessee — Murray State was dominating the glass, winning the rebound battle 22-9. There’s the Volunteers’ lack of size coming into play.
Lamonte Turner’s first point of the game came 22 minutes into the game. After an 0-5 start from the field, Turner hit one free throw to get on the board. Obviously, that was a trend that needed to change in a hurry.
While Turner struggled, Jordan Bowden kept Tennessee running. The senior guard hit a three on the move, then added four more at the free throw stripe to start the second half.
But Tennessee’s defensive issues continued. Murray State got what they wanted going to the rim without much resistance. So even as Tennessee’s offense came to life, the defensive effort was still dragging them down.
Things looked even tougher for Tennessee when John Fulkerson picked up his third foul at the five minute mark of the second half. But that’s actually when Tennessee flipped a switch. Tennessee locked in a bit defensively as the game slowed down. Bowden stayed hot shooting, while Pons added a couple of buckets down low.
The Volunteers cut the Murray State lead to 51-50 with 13:30 to play. Turner’s first make from the field tied things up at 54 a couple of minutes later. After trading buckets, another Bowden three gave Tennessee the lead. A putback from Pons, then a tough bucket from Fulkerson extended the lead with under nine minutes to play.
Olivier Nkamhoua left his mark on this game late, entering again for Fulkerson, who picked up his fourth foul. The four-star freshman power forward was active on the boards for Tennessee, grabbing key rebounds down the stretch and giving them a little bit of offense as well.
A five point lead turned into eight on yet another Bowden three. That eight point lead turned into 11 on — you guessed it — another Bowden three. Suddenly, this game looked like it was decided with four minutes to play.
Tennessee kept their foot on the gas, putting the Racers to bed over the next few minutes. This game was a bit of a gut check for the Volunteers, who trailed by 12 at one point in the game. But once the three-pointers stopped falling for Murray State, this one was done. Credit Tennessee’s better effort defensively for that.
Remember that 22-9 advantage Murray State held on the boards? That number evened out in the second half. Tennessee actually ended up winning the rebounding battle 35-34.
It was a much better second half overall for the Vols, who were trying to get tuned up to face No. 20 Washington in Toronto on Saturday afternoon. That will be a stiffer test for sure, but it was good to see Tennessee get pushed tonight and respond how they did.
Bowden: 26 points (6-8 from three)
Turner: 5 points, 11 assists
Pons: 19 points (3-4 from three), 4 rebounds, 4 blocks
Fulkerson: 9 points, 9 rebounds
Johnson: 7 points, 2 rebounds
Nkamhoua: 8 points, 7 rebounds
James: 5 points, 2 rebounds