When Antonio Barton swished a 45-foot shot at the first-half buzzer Monday night against Virginia he reacted as if he expected to make it. No wonder. He and his fellow Tennessee guards seemingly made every shot they launched en route to a stunning 87-52 massacre at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Josh Richardson finished 8 of 9 from the field, including 4 of 4 from 3-point range, and matched his career high with 20 points. Jordan McRae was 6 of 10 from the field, including 3 of 4 from 3, and nailed 6 of 6 foul shots on his way to 21 points. Barton was 5 of 6 from the field, 3 of 4 from 3 and 1 of 1 from the foul line en route to 14 points.
To recap: Tennessee’s backcourt trio combined to sink 19 of 25 field-goal tries, 10 of 12 treys and 7 of 7 foul shots against a Cavaliers squad that ranks among the NCAA’s top 15 teams in virtually every defensive category.
“I knew it was going to be a long night for them,” Richardson said, “when we came out and we were hitting everything we were throwing up there.”
“It was just one of those nights,” Barton said. “Our shots were falling.”
The lopsided win avenges a 46-38 loss last season in Charlottesville. In fact, the Vols scored 10 more points in the first half Monday night (48) than they did in the entire game a year ago.
With Richardson, McRae and Barton bombing from long range, 6-foot-8 Jarnell Stokes was able to maneuver inside for 20 points. He was just 4 of 10 from the field but drained 12 of 14 tries from the foul line.
In short, this was just what the doctor ordered for a Tennessee team that grossly underachieved in stumbling to a 7-4 start in its previous 11 games.
“It was a very good game, a very important game,” Barton said. “We can feed off this.”
For the second game in a row Richardson came out firing – and hitting – from the opening tip. After scoring 19 points in Game 11 against Morehead State, he went one point better in Game 12.
“I’m just taking open shots,” he said with a shrug. “Guys are getting me looks, and I’m just capitalizing off of it.”
Richardson nailed two 16-footers as Tennessee bolted to a 10-4 lead. After a 3 by McRae, Richardson scored 11 of Tennessee’s next 13 points, including two more treys, as the lead swelled to 26-10 with 10:51 left to halftime.
“We fed off his energy the whole game,” Barton said. “He started off hot, and that allowed me and Jordan to come in and shoot the ball, as well.”
Although his expression didn’t change as his buzzer-beating bomb from near midcourt ended the first half, Barton said he wasn’t stoic. He was stunned.
“I was amazed that it went in,” he said. “I shot it just to shoot. I didn’t think it would go in.”
Richardson wasn’t amazed. He was amused.
“I just started laughing,” he said. “It didn’t even hit the rim. I was like, ‘Man, this is crazy,’ and I started laughing.”
With Tennessee leading 48-26 at the break, the Vols could have relaxed at the start of the second half and let the Cavs creep back in the game. Instead, Tennessee kept its focus. A putback by McRae bumped the lead to 26 points (62-36) with 12:25 left. The gap peaked at 35 points (82-47) and was still there at the final horn.
McRae may have given his best performance as a Vol. In addition to his quality shooting, he posted a game-high 5 assists, 5 rebounds, a block and 2 steals while playing 31 minutes without a turnover. He even limited Virginia scoring leader Joe Harris to 2-for-9 shooting and 7 points in what Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin labeled “Jordan’s best job defensively since he got here.” Derek Reese came off the bench to grab 9 rebounds in 10 minutes for the Vols, now 8-4.
Justin Anderson scored 11 points to pace Virginia, which shot just 32.7 percent from the field and 16.7 percent (2 of 12) from 3-point range in falling to 9-4.
Beating a quality foe was big for Tennessee. Hammering a quality foe was even bigger for a team that had not played anywhere near its potential in the previous 11 games.
“It helps a lot that we’re able to beat a team like that very convincingly,” Richardson said. “Now we’ve just got to stay in the gym. We have games where we shoot like 20 percent from the field but we’re getting open looks. We’ve just got to capitalize on them.”
They certainly capitalized Monday night.