Tennessee missed Jeronne Maymon Thursday in its Puerto Rico Tip-Off opener against UNC Asheville but not as much as most observers expected.
Pressed into the starting lineup by Maymon's ongoing knee problems, 6-foot-9 senior post Kenny Hall produced 14 points and 8 rebounds in helping the Vols to a 75-68 victory. Hall, who missed the last nine games of 2011-12 due to a disciplinary suspension, hit 6 of 9 shots from the field and blocked 2 shots versus the Bulldogs in perhaps the finest all-around game of his college career.
"One thing Kenny's done is he's doing a good job of bouncing back and being a good leader," head coach Cuonzo Martin said on his post-game show. "He's not very vocal as a leader but he's accepting his role, going inside, going outside, shooting his shot from the perimeter and making his free throws.
"Kenny Hall has really grown up. I'm so proud of his approach to the game, his ability to play as hard as he can play, but also stepping in for a guy like Jeronne Maymon and really rebounding the basketball. I think Kenny's doing a great job."
Though hindered by fouls (5) and turnovers (3), Vol teammate Jarnell Stokes produced a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore raked six of his rebounds off the offensive glass.
Junior point guard Trae Golden also scored 14 points for the Vols, adding 5 assists and just 2 turnovers. Josh Richardson and Jordan McRae contributed a dozen points each to the Vols' balanced attack. Richardson did a little of everything, going 4 of 7 from the field, 1 of 2 from 3-point range and 3 of 3 from the foul line, grabbing 5 rebounds and making 2 steals. McRae hit 4 of 6 shots, including 2 of 2 from beyond the arc, and contributed a pair of assists.
The win sends Tennessee, now 2-0, into Friday's Tip-Off semifinals against Oklahoma State, which advanced with a 69-65 overtime defeat of Akron. Tipoff is set for 10:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Jeremy Atkinson scored 18 points, D.J. Cunningham and Jon Nwannunu 12 each for Asheville, now 1-2 on the season and 0-9 all-time against the Vols.
Tennessee struggled out of the gate and trailed 19-20 with 8:36 left in the first half. Golden hit a 6-footer in transition to open an 11-2 run that McRae closed with a 3-pointer, giving Tennessee a 30-22 lead. The Vols widened the gap to 38-28 by the break.
The Big Orange opened the second half with a 12-5 spurt that produced a 17-point lead (50-33) with 15:45 remaining. But, as happened in the opener against Kennesaw State, the Vols lost focus and squandered much of their advantage. UNC Asheville kept chipping away and pulled within six points (74-68) with 15.4 seconds left. Richardson hit a free throw with 12.1 seconds remaining to secure the final margin.
"I feel like we've got to do a lot better job of closing out," Hall said, adding: "I think we just have to do a better job of keeping our poise out there on the floor, especially when we get a nice lead. We can't get too comfortable out there because a lot of better teams is going to take advantage of that."
Martin praised the Bulldogs for fighting back when Tennessee appeared ready to salt the game away.
"When we got up 15, 17 points, those guys stayed the course, found ways to make plays," the Vol coach said. "I don't think we were as sharp in about a five-minute span defensively, and they made the plays to make it a ball game."
Tennessee was solid offensively, shooting 50 percent (26 of 52) from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range (4 of 8). The Vols were a little sloppy at times, however, committing 14 turnovers.
Tennessee's defense was not at all sharp. It allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 50 percent from the field (23 of 46) and it forced just 11 turnovers. After being outrebounded by Kennesaw in Game 1, however, the Vols bounced back to dominate the backboards in Game 2 by a 37-25 margin.
Martin was pleased with the backboard work, noting: "I thought our guys did a tremendous holding those guys to three offensive rebounds, as much as they get the ball around the rim."
OKLAHOMA STATE PREVIEW: The Cowboys improved to 2-0 with their defeat of Akron, thanks to a superior all-around performance by Marcus Smart. In addition to contributing 16 points, he led Oklahoma State in rebounds (9), steals (4) and assists (3). Le'Bryan Nash led all scorers for the Cowboys with 18 points, while Markel Brown chipped in 17.... Oklahoma State shot just 37.5 percent from the field (21 of 56) but limited Akron go 30 percent (21 of 70).... Oklahoma State's Philip Jurick was signed by Bruce Pearl out of Chattanooga's East Ridge High School and redshirted as a Tennessee freshman in 2008-09 before transferring. The 6-foot-10 Jurick produced 2 points, 8 rebound and 2 blocked shots before fouling out in a 20-minute relief stint versus Akron.