He's supposed to be Tennessee's defensive stopper, but Josh Richardson was essentially the Vols' offensive starter in Friday night's 66-52 defeat of Western Carolina.
The key may have been fiber-optic technology.
“Coach (Cuonzo Martin) actually texted me today,” Richardson recalled after matching his career high with 12 points. “He said I have to stay aggressive in my offense to remain a threat.”
Richardson wasn't much of a threat in the first half, going 0 for 2 from the field as the Vols made just 3 of 21 field-goal tries as a team. He went 5 for 5 after intermission, however, and spearheaded an 18-2 explosion that turned a one-point deficit into a 15-point lead.
“I think we needed a little boost,” he said.
He certainly provided one. With Tennessee down 38-37 and 11:57 remaining, the 6-foot-6 sophomore made a baseline drive that gave the Vols the lead for good at 39-38. After his spinning 6-footer pushed the lead to 43-38 moments later, another baseline drive widened the gap to 47-40. Three minutes later Skylar McBee drained a 3-pointer to cap the 18-2 explosion and pad the lead to 55-40 with 4:11 remaining. Tennessee coasted home from there.
“Earlier in the season I would have probably stopped attacking,” Richardson said after scoring 10 of his 12 points after intermission. “But I told myself to keep going to the rim in the second half, and it came.”
It came just in time, too. The Vols appeared in danger of suffering a humbling home-floor loss until Richardson ignited the 18-2 rally. Asked what sparked the run, he paused thoughtfully, then shrugged.
“I honestly don't know,” he said, drawing a laugh from reporters with his candor.
After more thought, Richardson added: “Once the first couple of buckets (dropped), the energy definitely picked up a lot … a whole lot.”
The Vols spent the game's first 28 minutes adjusting to Western Carolina's defensive strategy … foul, foul and foul some more. Tennessee made 16 of 20 free throws in the first half and led 22-18 at the break, despite its abysmal field-goal shooting. The Big Orange finished with a season-high 42 foul shots, making 30.
“It was a rough game all-around,” Richardson said, “but we just had to play through the physicality.”
Senior center Kenny Hall, who produced 9 points and a career-high 13 rebounds, thought the feisty Catamounts could've been whistled for a lot more fouls than they were.
“I guess if they don't call it, it ain't a foul,” he said. “We've just got to play through it. That's the nature of the game. That's the way it goes.”
Tennessee's rash of free throws was prompted by more than Western Carolina's foul-prone approach, however.
“We're doing a great job of getting to the line; all of the guards are attacking the basket hard,” said wing Jordan McRae, who came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points for the Vols. “For us to win when our (outside) shots are not falling, we have to keep doing that.”
Another thing the Vols must do when their shots aren't falling is play good defense. They did that, limiting Western Carolina to 37.5 percent from the field (21 of 56) and 16.7 percent from 3-point range (2 of 12). Richardson, as usual, played a key role in the defensive effort.
“I know I've got to become a defensive stopper, like lock-down,” he said. “It's a work in progress, I guess.”
Richardson typically draws the opponent's most offensive-minded perimeter player. Friday he drew Trey Sumler, who led the Catamounts (4-8) with 23 points. Asked if guarding high-scoring players night after night is a burden, Richardson shook his head.
“I don't think it's a burden at all,” he said. “It's kind of a privilege to say 'I'm going to guard the best guy and I'm going to shut him down.'”
Sophomore post Jarnell Stokes added 12 points and 9 rebounds for Tennessee, now 7-3. Point guard Trae Golden struggled from the field (1 for 9) but hit 8 of 10 foul shots and chipped in 10 points.
As a team Tennessee shot just 36.2 percent from the field (17 of 47) and 14.3 percent from beyond the arc (2 of 14). The Big Orange won the backboards 45-30, however, and piled up a 30-8 advantage at the foul line.
The Vols now break for the holidays, reconvening Dec. 26. They host Xavier Dec. 29 at 6 p.m.