The Railsplitters, ranked No. 2 nationally in preseason at their level of competition, can be a handful ... which they proved after falling behind 21-3 at the start of Monday night's game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Down by 23 points (53-30) early in the second half, LMU scratched and clawed until it whittled the deficit to 64-60 with 7:09 left. Vol point guard Trae Golden saved the day at this point, hitting a clutch 3-pointer, then assisting Cameron Tatum for a transition dunk that widened the gap to 69-60 and enabled Tennessee
to hold on for a 76-67 victory.
Vol fans probably were surprised by the narrow margin against a Div. II foe but Vol coaches and players were not.
Asked by a reporter if the Railsplitters are "decent," Golden responded with an incredulous look.
"Yeah!" he said with a laugh. "You all saw the game. They're a great team. Any team that can come back from 20 points down is a great team. They're not ranked No. 2 in Div. II for no reason."
Tennessee's head coach echoed that sentiment.
"Tennessee is expected to win this game (big) because we're Tennessee but that's a really good opponent — a tough opponent, a physical opponent," Cuonzo Martin said. "They give you your money's worth, so to speak. They can bang on the block. They have big guys that can slow down guards. They can shoot.
"Most (Div. I) teams wouldn't play those guys. They wouldn't play 'em because of what they bring to the table."
LMU didn't bring much to the table in the opening minutes, however. Up 3-2, the visitors watched Tennessee go on a 19-0 run that produced the 21-3 bulge. Renaldo Woolridge and Jordan McRae drained 3-pointers early in the explosion and Skylar McBee capped it with back-to-back treys.
The Railsplitters got no closer than eight points the rest of the half and went to the break trailing 44-28. Consecutive 3-pointers by Golden widened the gap to 53-30 with 17:30 left but LMU showed true grit by storming back.
Asked what he would say to Vol fans who might raise an eyebrow about a single-digit win over a Div. II foe, Martin shrugged.
"That's a great opponent," he said. "There are Div. II programs around the country that beat major programs.... I knew they'd be good; they were better than I thought they'd be. I can't worry about what people think. Our job is to win ball games, get our guys better."
Golden was outstanding — finishing with 22 points, 8 assists and zero turnovers. The 6-1, 209-pound sophomore was 6 of 13 from the field, 4 of 9 from 3 and 6 of 7 from the foul line. He also grabbed 4 rebounds and blocked a shot.
Tatum made just 5 of 15 field-goal tries but contributed 13 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and a block. Jeronne Maymon posted his second double-double of the preseason with 11 points and 11 rebounds. McBee finished 4 of 6 from the field, including 3 of 4 from 3, en route to 11 points of his own.
Tennessee won the backboard battle 45-34 but shot a chilly 34.4 percent (22 of 64) from the field. The Vols atoned with good marksmanship from beyond the arc (38.7 percent) and the foul line (83.3 percent).
Reserve Jake Troyli was pretty much the whole show for LMU, hitting 9 of 11 shots en route to 25 points in 23 minutes. The Railsplitters shot a paltry 37.9 percent in the first half but shredded Tennessee's defense to the tune of 53.6 percent (15 of 28) after intermission. Still, the defensive-minded Martin wasn't disappointed.
"Not really," he said. "If I could, I'd like to hold every team to 40 points because I love with a passion shutting teams down. But we had a couple of key guys (Maymon, Kenny Hall) having foul trouble along the interior....
"I thought we had some slippage, and our transition defense broke down the second half."
Tennessee opens for real Friday night, hosting UNC-Greensboro in a 7 o'clock tipoff.