You could’ve gotten astronomical odds in Las Vegas if you’d been willing to wager that Josh Richardson would be Tennessee’s leading scorer and Derek Reese would post a double-double Monday night against Morehead State.
And, incredibly, you would’ve collected on both bets.
Richardson, who scored just six points in the previous two games combined, produced 19 points (one off his career high) and Reese, who didn’t see the floor in the first 10 games, posted 12 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks in 19 relief minutes. That was enough to shock the crowd and ground the Eagles, 82-67.
Richardson’s unselfish approach sometimes cost Tennessee in the past. Knowing he prefers passing to shooting, opponents occasionally left him unguarded, essentially creating a 5-on-4 defensive mismatch. It’s important that he score enough to keep opponents honest.
“It’s big,” Richardson conceded. “Guys can’t double off me onto Jarnell (Stokes) and Jeronne (Maymon). That makes it a lot easier on them. I’ve just got to be active.”
Thanks to some pre-game prodding from head coach Cuonzo Martin Monday night, Richardson came out looking for his shot … and he found it.
“He called me back (to the bench) to talk to me before the tip,” Richardson said. “He was like ‘Be aggressive.’ I was like ‘All right,’ and he was like, ‘No. Be aggressive!”
Message received. Richardson scored on a drive in the opening minutes, then drained a 3-pointer. Hitting those first two shots provided a big lift.
“I felt good,” he said, grinning broadly. “It definitely felt good … got my blood flowing a little bit.”
The blood must have kept flowing because Richardson scored 12 points as Tennessee bolted to a 29-15 lead. The 6-foot-6 junior wing added another bucket just before halftime and went to the break with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting. Tennessee put the game away by scoring the first 13 points of the second half, bumping a 41-30 intermission lead to 54-30 with 16:52 remaining.
As well as Richardson played, though, Reese may have been an even bigger story. The 6-foot-8 sophomore was the Vols’ forgotten man after sitting out the first 10 games. Getting to play was a relief. Getting a double-double was amazing.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “It’s a credit to my hard work. But I can’t stop now.”
Naturally, watching the first 10 games from the sidelines was difficult.
“It was really tough,” Reese conceded. “But I’ve been in situations like this before with my AAU team. I just kept telling myself to keep working hard and I just kept praying. That motivated me to keep working every day. Coach Martin said he wanted to see more consistency from me in practice.”
Gradually, Reese’s practice performances began to improve. Teammates noticed.
“He’s definitely been playing a lot tougher,” Richardson said. “He’s been hitting a lot more shots in practice, and he’s been in the gym a lot more lately. I’m just glad he got his edge back.”
Whether Tennessee got its edge back Monday night remains to be seen. Snapping a two-game losing streak, the Vols played much harder and better than they did in last Wednesday’s home loss to North Carolina State. They got good production from the inside duo of Maymon (16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks in 20 minutes) and Stokes (13 points, 9 rebounds).
After shooting miserably against N.C. State, the Vols bounced back to hit 52.5 percent from the field and 50 percent (6 of 12) from 3 against the Eagles. Tennessee dominated the backboards, winning the rebound battle 49-28. The two problem areas: TheVols shot just 52.2 percent (12 of 23) from the foul line and committed 15 turnovers. All in all, though, it was a solid effort.
“It was a great team win coming off two tough losses, mentally and physically,” Martin said. “I thought the guys did a really good job carrying out their defensive assignments tonight, except maybe three possessions late in the first half and the last two minutes (of the game).”
After a brief Christmas break, the Vols return to action one week from tonight, hosting Virginia.