Tennessee's players didn't fall asleep after racing to a 22-5 lead against Savannah State Tuesday night but their eyelids got a little heavy.
When the visiting Tigers responded with a 28-13 rally that narrowed the gap to 35-33 with 14:31 remaining, the Vols realized nap time would have to wait. Tennessee then regained enough focus to finish off a 65-51 victory in its National Invitation Tournament debut.
"It was an eye-opener, definitely, knowing that everybody still has a chance to make a run in a game like that," Vol freshman Josh Richardson said. "It opens our eyes to the fact that we've got to keep our heads in the game."
Tennessee should have learned that lesson by now. The Big Orange has been on both sides of the comeback spectrum several times this season.
The Vols trailed Memphis 24-40 in Game 2 but fought back to send the game into overtime. They led Austin Peay 64-53 with 6:27 left in Game 6 only to lose 70-74. They led College of Charleston 28-15 in Game 7 but wound up losing 65-71. They trailed UNC Asheville 17-28 in Game 8 and trailed East Tennessee State 13-24 in Game 9 before rallying to win each time. They trailed Ole Miss 2-15 in Game 26 and trailed LSU 16-31 in Game 28 but roared back to prevail in both contests.
Ultimately, Tennessee probably benefited from its mid-game struggles with Savannah State. Instead of coasting to a 30-point victory, the Vols wound up grinding to a 14-point win that forced them to make some plays and some stops in clutch, late-game situations.
"We gained some, learning that teams are not going to quit," senior wing Cameron Tatum said. "Those guys kept attacking the offensive glass, kept fighting and kept playing. We have to do a better job playing hard the whole game and finishing plays."
Even so, sophomore point guard Trae Golden thought Tennessee executed awfully well in building the 22-5 lead.
"We love to play, love to get up and down the court, and we made a lot of great plays early," he said. "It's sad that the lead got cut back down but I think we played really well and defended really well. We got the win, and that's all that matters."
When asked if the Vols relaxed after jumping out to the 22-5 lead, however, Golden nodded.
"You could say that," he said. "I think sometimes we tend to take our foot off the pedal, and that's something we've got to get better at."
"I think we got a little lax with turnovers and taking quick shots more than anything," he said. "What got us that lead was finding each other (with crisp passes) and playing great team ball, so we've got to do a better job of doing that all game."
Sophomore wing Jordan McRae believes getting tested in their NIT opener will help the Vols next time out.
"I think the game was kind of sloppy, both ways," he said. "But blowing 'em out by 30, we don't gain much by that. Having a little closer game and having to execute at the end was good for us."
Playing 10 great minutes to start the game and 15 good minutes to finish the game was sufficient in Round 1 but won't cut it in Round 2. Thus, the Savannah State contest should remind the Vols that postseason play requires 40 minutes of effort and focus, no matter how well you play the first 10.
"Yeah, it definitely does," McRae said. "This was just the first round, and I doubt all of our games are going to be like that. They (Savannah State) are a great team but I think we'll face better teams down the road."
Middle Tennessee, for instance. The Blue Raiders bring a 26-6 record to Knoxville for a second-round NIT game Monday at 7. Tennessee's players are eager to face the challenge.
"I feel like we got our legs under us," Golden said. "We're ready to get to our next game and we're excited to keep playing in Thompson-Boling. That's what we're looking forward to."