Revenge was sweet and abundant Friday as a fired-up Tennessee squad avenged a season-opening loss to Xavier by mauling the Musketeers 64-49 in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament at Paradise Island, Bahamas.
Xavier led wire to wire in beating Tennessee 67-63 Nov. 12 in Cincinnati. The big difference? The big men.
Jarnell Stokes, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound Vol junior limited to 4 points and 4 rebounds in the first meeting, posted 20 points and 10 rebounds in the rematch. Jeronne Maymon, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound senior who scored just 7 points in the first meeting, doubled that total in the second meeting.
“They played well,” head coach Cuonzo Martin said on the post-game show. “They rebounded well. They rebounded well last night (in a 78-70 loss to UTEP) but we didn’t capitalize on free throws and layups. It’s emotionally taxing when you’re missing those layups around the rim and those free throws….
“When those two guys play well, I think we play well as a team because we have to go through those guys. They rebound and defend and put pressure on the defense.”
Stokes says he struggled with the new NCAA rules clamping down on hand checks and arm bars when the Vols and Musketeers met the first time.
“I had to adjust to the new rules,” he said. “I watched film a lot just to make sure I don’t get two fouls early (again). I pretty much learned my lesson.”
Apparently smarting from Thursday night’s humiliating 78-70 loss to UTEP, the Vols came out with more energy and focus in their loser’s bracket battle with Xavier. A 3-pointer and a follow shot by McRae helped Tennessee bolt to a 14-9 lead. Consecutive inside baskets by Maymon and Stokes widened the gap to 23-14 midway through the half. The lead swelled to 13 points (35-22) on a coast-to-coast drive by Antonio Barton.
Tennessee scored the first eight points of the second half, bumping a 39-26 intermission lead to 21 points at 47-26. McRae opened the spurt with a reverse layup. Josh Richardson hit a hanging jumper from 10 feet, Stokes scored inside and Maymon closed the spurt with a follow. The Vols never let Xavier draw closer than 15 points thereafter.
“They did a great job of bouncing back from an emotional game last night, a tough loss,” Martin said. “I thought our guys did a good job of bouncing back and playing at a high level.”
Stokes made 7 of 11 field-goal tries for Tennessee, which carries a 4-2 record into Saturday’s 3:30 Eastern tipoff against Wake Forest, which moved to 6-1 with a 77-63 defeat of Southern Cal. Although he finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds in the loss to UTEP, Stokes felt the need to redeem himself against Xavier.
“I woke up with a sour taste in my mouth,” he said on the post-game show. “I want to thank God for giving us a chance to redeem ourselves. I feel like if we would’ve played this way against UTEP, there’s no way we should be having a loss.”
Tennessee won the backboards 41-29 and beat the Musketeers 26-4 on second-chance points. The Vols shot 44.6 percent (25 of 56) from the field and limited Xavier to 40.4 percent (21 of 52). The Big Orange committed just nine turnovers, finishing in single digits for the third time in the past four games.
One concern: Tennessee’s 3-point shooting was abysmal as the Vols canned just 14.3 percent for the second game in a row. After going 3 for 21 on Thursday, Tennessee went 2 for 14 on Friday.
Perhaps the best thing Tennessee did against Xavier was learn from the defensive mistakes it made in the first meeting.
“You’ve got to take pride in defending,” Martin said. “I told the guys, ‘We can’t win at a high level if we don’t defend.’ That was the result last night (because) we don’t defend at a high level.
“You get to a point where you can’t hide basketball players. You’ve got to be able to guard somebody. We can’t hide three or four guys (who are defensive liabilities). At some point you’ve got to step up and defend.”