Despite the face of a choirboy, freshman Darius Thompson filled that role for Tennessee Friday night at Thompson-Boing Arena, recording five key steals in spearheading an 88-67 defeat of Tennessee State.
Rewarded with 24 minutes of court time, the 6-foot-5 backup point guard also contributed 7 assists, 6 points, 4 rebounds, a blocked shot and just 1 turnover in a most impressive performance.
"I thought he played well," head coach Cuonzo Martin said. "He does a good job, even in practice, of getting in the passing lanes and getting steals. He's 6-4, almost 6-5. He's very crafty, has a good feel for it, anticipates well and he uses his length on smaller guys."
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Thompson stole the ball on the Tigers' next two possessions, driving for a dunk on the first and passing to McRae for a dunk on the second as the lead swelled to 24-13. Moments later he made a layup off his own backcourt steal, then assisted Armani Moore for a layup that widened the gap to 35-19.
Thompson went to the bench at this point, and Tennessee's momentum went with him. The Tigers made an 11-3 spurt to pull within 38-30. When starting point guard Antonio Barton picked up his second foul and sat down with 22 seconds left in the half, Thompson returned to the floor. He promptly picked up his fourth steal of the half but missed an 18-foot jumper at the buzzer.
"I feel like I came in and got a few steals, got us going," he said. "We started getting the lead when I started playing better defense."
Thompson was a defensive liability when he arrived on campus from Murfreesboro Blackman High School earlier this year. He has worked hard to shed that image.
"In high school I had problems with defense," he admitted. "When I first got here it was really bad. Defense was really hard for me…. From the beginning of the year to now my defense has improved a lot."
The second half was a virtual replay of the first. With Tennessee up just 47-38, Thompson came off the bench and immediately ignited another rally. He assisted McRae and Moore for layups, then assisted Jarnell Stokes for a dunk. Thompson blew a layup after making his fifth steal of the game but McRae scored on the put-back to cap a 16-6 run that widened the gap to 63-44 with 10:24 remaining and buried the Tigers, who fall to 0-6.
McRae hit 9 of 13 field-goal attempts and led Tennessee, now 3-1, with 25 points. Stokes added 16. Barton scored just 7 points but was 3 of 4 from the field with 2 assists and zero turnovers in 24 minutes at the point.
Interestingly enough, Thompson did much of his damage while sharing the floor with Barton. Having both point guards in the lineup at once seemed to work exceptionally well for the Vols. Noting that Tennessee committed just 7 turnovers, Martin said he "thought Darius and Antonio did a good job of really attacking, facilitating the offense."
The benefits of a two-point guard lineup were obvious Friday night.
"You have two guys that make good decisions with the basketball," Martin said. "You have two guys that can make shots, two guys that can put it on the floor and two guys that are willing passers. They do a good job of finding guys.
"Antonio's probably more of a scorer but we mixed it up when both were out there – one at the point and the other at the 2 (guard) – then we'd flip-flop just so they'd get a feel for different situations in a game."
Thompson really enjoys sharing the floor with Barton, noting: "With two point guards, whoever gets it (ball) can go with it. When we're both in I feel like I'm the point guard and he's the shooting guard because he's a better scorer than me."
That may be subject to change. Tennessee's coach wants Thompson to become a scoring threat.
"Darius is more of a pass-first point guard," Martin said. "He needs to look to score more. I think he missed two layups late in the game (by being tentative going to the basket). He almost looked like a Globetrotter; he'd rather pass than attack the rim. We need him to attack the rim and score the basketball."
For now, though, Thompson is enjoying his pass-first role.
"My favorite thing to do is pass," he said. "I'd rather have 10 assists than 20 points but that's just me."
He didn't get 10 assists Friday night but the 7 he posted represented the highest total for a Vol all season.
"I just got comfortable out there," he said. "We started pushing the ball. My teammates were getting open and I was just finding ‘em."