There appeared to be trouble in Paradise when Tennessee’s Jordan McRae went to the bench with two quick fouls in Saturday’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament game against Wake Forest at Paradise Island, Bahamas.
Ultimately, McRae’s absence proved no big deal. Freshman guard Darius Thompson came off the bench to pick up the slack by scoring a career-high 16 points as the Vols routed the Demon Deacons 82-63.
“Darius scored the ball in high school but he’s a passer,” Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin said on the post-game show. “He’s a point guard and doesn’t mind passing the ball. Our guys know he can shoot. He throws the bounce pass, the lob pass, he feeds the bigs. But we need him to be a more assertive scorer. The last couple of games were better.”
Tennessee improves to 5-2 en route to claiming fifth place in the tournament. Wake slips to 6-2.
“The guys did a great job of bouncing back from a tough first day,” Martin said. “The thing I like about our guys is that they played as a team. We had discipline on both ends of the floor, executing our offense the last two games. We finished strong and played the way a good Tennessee team plays … a tougher breed-type team. We showed that on both ends of the floor.”
After playing horribly in a Round 1 loss to UTEP on Thursday, the Vols bounced back to trounce Xavier 77-63 on Friday and dominate the Demon Deacons on Saturday.
Starting fast for the second game in a row, Tennessee used a 16-5 explosion to turn a 6-7 deficit into a 22-12 lead. Thompson hit a 3-pointer, two free throws and a driving layup during the eruption.
Jarnell Stokes took control moments later, producing eight consecutive Vol points on a reverse layup, two foul shots, a layup and a 15-footer from the right baseline as the lead swelled to 15 points at 31-16.
The Vols’ first-half lead peaked at 17 points (41-24) when Stokes made the first of two free throws, missed the second but got the long rebound and dunked.
Wake closed to 43-32 at the break but Tennessee reclaimed the momentum by outscoring the Deacons 21-6 to open the second half, bumping the lead to 64-38. Antonio Barton scored seven points during the explosion.
The lead peaked at 28 points (71-43) when Thompson parlayed a driving basket into three-point play with 7:25 remaining. Tennessee cleared the bench at this point, enabling the Deacons to make the final score a little more respectable.
Stokes, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds on Friday, followed with 21 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday. He hit 6 of 9 shots from the field and 9 of 14 from the foul line.
Thompson got his 16 points by going 3 of 4 from the field, 1 of 2 from 3 and 9 of 9 on foul shots.
“He wasn’t shooting them (free throws) as well earlier, in games or in practice,” Martin said. “When he’s making his free throws I think he’s more confident and he’s tougher to defend.”
McRae rallied from his early foul troubles to contribute 10 points. Jeronne Maymon added 9.
As a team Tennessee shot 53.2 percent (25 of 47) from the field, 36.4 (4 of 11) from 3-point range and 77.8 (28 of 36) from the foul line. The Vols won the backboards 34-28 and committed just 8 turnovers.
“One of our goals as a team is to be under 10 turnovers per game,” said Martin, whose team has met this goal in four of the past five games. “Under 10 gives us a chance to win.”
The Vols were energetic on defense, too, limiting Wake Forest to 42.0 percent (21 of 50) shooting from the field.
Several Vols appeared overly concerned with the new foul rules earlier this season. Martin believes he has corrected that problem.
“I told the guys that if I don’t see you defend at a high level I’m taking you out of the game, whether you’re fouling or not,” the coach said. “I said you’ve got to be a presence. You’ve got to defend at a high level. We can’t get consumed with this new rule. We’ve got to play basketball and allow the officials to do their jobs.’”