Based on Day One, Tennessee’s time in the Bahamas isn’t going to be a pleasure trip.
Playing poorly on both offense and defense, the Vols suffered a 78-70 loss to UTEP Thursday night in the quarterfinal round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. The Big Orange shot just 34.9 percent (22 of 63) from the field and 14.3 percent (3 of 21) from 3-point range.
“Give those guys (Miners) credit,” Vol head man Cuonzo Martin said on the post-game show. “They threw a 3-2 defense, a triangle-and-two and a box-and-one defense, trying to mix it up. We never really got into a true flow.”
Even when they were unguarded, the Vols couldn’t connect. They made just 58.9 percent (23 of 39) from the foul line.
“When you have opportunities, you want to capitalize, especially at the free-throw line,” Martin said. “When you miss layups that’s tough but that’s part of it. You’ve got guys contesting shots, jumping to try and block shots. We’ve got to do a better job of capitalizing at the free-throw line.”
Meanwhile, the Vols struggled to defend the basket even more than they struggled to attack it. They allowed UTEP to shoot a sizzling 58.0 percent (29 of 50) from the field.
“We didn’t do a good job defending on the perimeter or on the block,” Martin said. “They made shots and made plays. It’s tough when you go over things you expect them (Miners) to do and we don’t execute defensively. We missed a lot around the rim but defensively we didn’t bring it to the table tonight.”
Tennessee, now 3-2, faces a quick turnaround in Round 2. Less than 13 hours after walking off the floor following the loss to the Miners, the Vols will face Xavier Saturday at 1 p.m. Eastern. Xavier earned its spot in the consolation bracket by losing 77-74 to No. 23 Iowa in overtime.
Tennessee opened Thursday night’s game well, building an 8-4 lead. The Miners roared back, however, with a 15-4 spurt that produced a 19-12 lead with 7:50 left in the half. Freshman Darius Thompson hit a 3-pointer from the key to cap an 8-0 run that put Tennessee on top 20-19. After an exchange of free throws gave the Vols a 21-20 lead, however, UTEP closed the half on a 16-7 run to take a 36-28 lead to intermission.
Tennessee was fortunate to trail by single digits, considering it shot just 28.1 percent (9 of 32) from the field while allowing UTEP to shoot 55.2 percent (16 of 29). The Vols stayed in the game by killing the Miners on the backboards, 27-15. Fifteen of Tennessee’s rebounds came off the offensive glass.
UTEP gradually extended the lead, going up by 15 points (60-45) on a drive by Mckenzie Moore with 6:38 left. Tennessee forced some turnovers via fullcourt pressure at this point, making a 16-7 run that narrowed the gap to six points (67-61) with 2:35 remaining. Justin Crosgile drained a clutch 3-pointer from the left corner, however, bumping the Miners’ lead to nine and seemingly taking the starch out of the Vols.
“That was a tough, tough 3,” Martin said. “I was actually surprised he shot it. It was a tough 3 and it went in. I felt like we had the momentum going … but he made a big 3.”
Jordan McRae led Tennessee with 22 points but made just 6 of 17 shots from the field, including 1 of 8 from 3-point range. Jarnell Stokes added 13 points and 14 rebounds. Josh Richardson chipped in 13 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists for the Vols. The bright spot for Tennessee was that it grabbed 26 offensive rebounds and dominated the backboards 46-28.
McKenzie Moore scored 19 points to pace the Miners, now 4-2. John Bohannon added 16 and Julian Washburn 12.