Tennessee exhibited balanced scoring in the first half of Tuesday night’s opener at Xavier: The Vols couldn’t score from the field, from 3 or from the foul line. As a result, the Big Orange dug a hole it never escaped in suffering a 67-63 loss in Cincinnati.
The Vols made just 1 of their first 17 field-goal tries and trailed 14-4 as the game hit the 10-minute mark. They warmed up a bit in narrowing the gap to 27-20 at halftime but still finished the first 20 minutes shooting a frigid 26.7 percent (8 of 30) from the field, 11.1 percent (1 of 9) from 3 and 25 percent (3 of 12) from the foul line.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin thought having to pull Jarnell Stokes, who picked up two fouls in the game’s first five minutes, was a key to the Vols’ shooting woes.
“When Jarnell went out with foul trouble, now you don’t have your low-post guy to go inside,” the coach said on his post-game show. “And I didn’t think our movement was good in the first half.”
The fact the projected No. 1 point guard, Antonio Barton, missed both preseason exhibitions due to a leg injury, was another mitigating factor in the slow start offensively.
“You don’t want to call a lot of plays because he hasn’t been out there in awhile,” Martin said. “You’re trying to run some motion but we got stagnant there for a while.”
Jordan McRae scored Tennessee’s final seven points of the half to keep the game from getting out of hand.
With Xavier blanketing McRae, Josh Richardson scored Tennessee’s first eight points of the second half – sandwiching a pair of 3-pointers around two free throws. Barton hit a 3 that narrowed the gap to 39-37 with 13:03 left but Xavier withstood the rally and moved ahead 60-50 with 2:40 remaining.
With the game slipping away Tennessee finally showed some life. Jeronne Maymon hit a layup, McRae scored on a coast-to-coast drive and Richardson bagged a 3 as the Vols closed to 61-57 with 44 seconds left. A 3 by McRae whittled the gap to 63-60 with 16.7 seconds showing. Freshman Myles Davis hit four free throws in the final 13 seconds, however, as the Musketeers moved to 2-0.
Tennessee warmed up considerably in the second half, shooting 59.2 percent (16 of 27) from the field and 70 percent (7 of 10) from 3. The Vols never did find the range from the charity stripe, however, shooting a dismal 36.8 percent (7 of 19).
Xavier shot 48.1 percent (26 of 54) from the field, 25 percent (2 of 8) from 3 and 54.2 percent (13 of 24) from the line.
McRae, who led the Vols with 23 points, thought Tennessee’s frigid start could be chalked up to first-game jitters.
“Guys were really excited to get out there, it being the first game,” he said on the post-game show. “We missed a lot of shots that we normally make.”
Richardson added 12. Barton came off the bench to contribute 10 points and 4 assists in 30 quality minutes. Tennessee’s heralded post duo of Stokes and Maymon struggled all night. Maymon contributed 7 points and 10 rebounds; Stokes, playing just five first-half minutes due to foul trouble, produced just 4 points and 4 rebounds.
“I thought the first half we got some layup opportunities but didn’t capitalize on ‘em,” Martin said on the post-game show. “That takes the air out of you.”
Semaj Christon led Xavier with 18 points. Davis chipped in 14. Six-foot-10, 260-pound Matt Stainbrook added 12 points and 9 rebounds as Xavier whipped Tennessee 44-32 on points in the paint and won the backboard battle 40-34.
“We could never catch up in the second half,” Martin said. “We got some stops, made some plays. The offense opened up with our dribble-penetration motion offense but we just couldn’t get consistent stops to take the lead.”
Tennessee plays its home opener Saturday, hosting South Carolina Upstate at 7 p.m.