Tennessee opened Tuesday night's game at Thompson-Boling Arena with an 8-0 spurt but Middle rallied to go up 10-8. The Vols went with their second wave at this point - inserting Steven Pearl for Tobias Harris, Renaldo Woolridge for Cameron Tatum and John Fields for Brian Williams. Eight minutes and one 21-0 explosion later, the Vols had a 29-10 lead en route to an 86-56 romp.
"That's what the bench does," Fields said afterward. "We've got to bring energy. If the starters aren't bringing it, we've got to come in and pick up the intensity. I feel like we did a good job of shutting 'em down in that stretch."
The Vols improve to 6-0. MTSU slips to 3-4.
For the third consecutive game Tennessee faced a team that relies heavily on a star point guard. And, for the third consecutive game, Tennessee took him out of the game.
James Washington scored eight of the Blue Raiders' first 10 points, then saw Tennessee put the clamps on him. He would not score again for the rest of the half. And, for a while, it appeared Middle Tennessee might not score again, either. The Raiders went from 15:04 to 7:01 - a span of 8 minutes and three seconds - between first-half points.
"We was focusing on ball-screen defense - not letting 'em get the ball in the middle to penetrate for dishes," Fields said. "They wanted to shoot (from 3) and get to the rim but we focused on (stopping) that and finishing possessions with the two-hand rebound."
The strategy worked beautifully. The first half saw the Vols win the backboard battle 19-12, limit MTSU to 36.4-percent shooting, force 12
turnovers and roll to a 46-23 lead.
No. 13 Tennessee coasted home from there, building its biggest lead at 34 points (78-44) with 6 minutes left.
The Vols dominated statistically - shooting 50 percent to Middle's 40.8 and winning the boards 41-21.
"The area of the boards were very, very important," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "That team was plus-9 on the boards and I thought we did a really nice job rebounding the basketball."
The Big Orange controlled the inside. Freshman power forward Tobias Harris produced 21 points and 6 rebounds. First-team center Brian Williams added 6 points and 9 rebounds. Second-team center Fields finished with 4 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks in 12 active minutes. Third-team center Kenny Hall chipped in 8 points, 3 rebounds and a block in 9 quality minutes.
Scotty Hopson, MVP of last week's NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament, continued his fine play - hitting 4 of 6 shots from behind the arc en route to 19 points in 23 minutes. Melvin Goins, limited to 15 minutes by foul trouble, made his minutes count by dishing out 5 assists and grabbing 5 rebounds. He also helped limit Washington, averaging 16.3 points per game, to 11 - all but three coming in the game's first five minutes.
Simply put, Tennessee has advanced light-years since losing an exhibition game to Div. II Indianapolis on Nov. 8. Even the head man seemed a bit surprised by the progress made in three weeks.
"I'm only surprised because I saw us play not that well in early November," Pearl said. "We've improved a lot in the month of November. We've probably improved as much as any team I've had in the month of November.
"From that standpoint, was I surprised we played that well in New York? Yes. Was I surprised this victory was a 30-point win? Yes ... because we've made so much progress in November. Back in the middle of November I don't know that I could've anticipated us playing this effectively or this well together."
With final exams looming, the Vols will not return to action until Dec. 11, when they visit Pittsburgh.