In an apparent salute to Santa Claus Tennessee’s shooting was North Pole frigid Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling. We’re talking brrrrrrick after brrrrrrick after brrrrrrick.
The Vols made just 3 of 24 attempts from 3-point range – mind-numbing if not finger-numbing – and shot an icy 29.4 percent overall en route to an ugly 65-58 loss to North Carolina State. Now 6-4 and riding a two-game losing streak, Tennessee’s hopes for a happy holiday are fading fast.
“It’s real tough for us,” said senior wing Jordan McRae, who led the Big Orange with 21 points. “We’ve just got to find a way to put the ball in the basket. That’s just it.”
McRae sank just 6 of 22 shots, including 3 of 12 from 3. Still, that qualified as hot shooting, given that his teammates combined to go 0 of 12 beyond the arc.
Tennessee might have been able to overcome its horrendous shooting if the Vols had played well on defense. Alas, they were almost as futile on that end of the floor as on the offensive end. They allowed the Wolfpack to shoot 50 percent (15 of 30) from the field in the first half on its way to a 37-20 intermission lead.
“We’re not putting the ball in the basket; we’re not guarding,” McRae grumbled. “It’s got to be one or the other. We’ve got to guard or we’ve got to score 80 points but we’re not doing either.”
Excessive losses in preconference play doomed Tennessee to NIT bids in 2011-12 and 2012-13. That scenario appears to be playing out again.
“The past two years we waited till late January to turn things around,” McRae said. “We’ve got to do it now.”
That sense of urgency was missing at the start of Wednesday’s game. The Vols saw a quick 6-0 deficit swell to 30-15.
“This team showed way more energy than us on both ends of the floor,” said senior Jeronne Maymon, who kept Tennessee in the game by producing 17 points and 16 rebounds. “I felt we were ready. Something was missing (at the game’s start) but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
One thing the Vols were missing was a 3-point stroke. They went 0 of 9 beyond the arc in the first half and shot just 24.1 percent (7 of 29) overall.
Back-to-back 3s by McRae got the Vols within single digits (34-42) early in the second half, then a spectacular shot block and coast-to-coast drive by freshman Darius Thompson trimmed the deficit to five (48-43) with 8:30 remaining.
Wolfpack standout T.J. Warren took over the game at this point, hitting a dunk, a fallaway 12-foot baseline jumper, a layup and two free throws in a 12-6 spurt that sealed the deal. Warren finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds for State, now 8-2.
Jarnell Stokes had a fairly good game for Tennessee, producing 10 points and 13 rebounds. Ultimately, he, Maymon and McRae accounted for 48 of Tennessee’s 58 points.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin summed up the game in 11 words: “When they sag in the lane you have to make shots.”
The Vols failed miserably in that regard. Guards McRae (6 of 22), Antonio Barton (0 of 8), Josh Richardson (1 of 2), Thompson (1 of 5) and Robert Hubbs (2 of 7) combined to make just 10 of 44 shots. Tennessee won’t win many games with shooting like that.
The obvious question: Will the struggling Vols go to work or go in the tank?
“We’ve got time to turn things around,” McRae said. “It’s a long season.”
True. And it seems to be getting longer by the minute.