The past several months have taken a toll on the UT basketball program. From Cuonzo Martin’s departure, to the spring exodus of commitments and players on the roster to the current NCAA investigation that involves Donnie Tyndall, the Vols have been through a lot.
Throw in a double-digit season-opening loss to VCU and a sluggish start against Texas Southern on Thursday night, and the lack of energy was understandable on a lot of levels.
But with just under 10 minutes left in the game and the Tigers, an NCAA tournament team in 2014, sticking around in the game, the Vols got some stops, hit a few shots and put together a modest 6-0 run. Tyndall motioned to the crowd to get into the game and it responded, rising to its feet and encouraging the Vols as they pulled away down the stretch on the way to a 70-58 win.
“It felt really good,” said forward Armani Moore. “I felt like the highlight of the night was when the crowd actually got into it. That gave us a big boost tonight, we were able to do some great things once the crowd got into it.”
Tyndall took it a step further.
“Let me start by saying this that there was no way we would have won that game tonight if it weren’t for our fans,” said Tyndall, who earned his first regular-season win as the head coach at Tennessee. “I want to start by thanking them. I thought the second half I was kind of encouraging them to get into the game. We made our run as they were getting loud and into it. So we certainly appreciate them. It was a big key tonight.”
And it was a preview of – if given the opportunity to get rolling in the future – what the Vols could look like under Tyndall on a regular basis, even against more quality opponents. The Vols were more efficient on offense, they tightened up both their full-court and half-court defense and created some turnovers that energized both the team and the crowd.
The conditioning advantage clearly looked to be on Tennessee’s side as well – something Tyndall takes great pleasure in.
“I think in the second half our press kind of wore them down a little bit,” said Tyndall. “We caused some turnovers. We always use the term ‘take their legs’ during the last 8 or 12 minutes of the game. We want to tape their legs where they are not making as many jump shots. They miss free throws because of fatigue. I thought that was the case tonight.”
Thursday was also a reminder of how far this program still needs to go, however. A win over a Texas Southern team that was missing three starters doesn’t pad the resume a ton. And while the second half was a glimpse of what could be, the sluggish start and a few stretches of so-so execution reminder that this inexperienced team still has a long way to go.
“I would like to say [the win] feels great, but I just know in the future we can’t come out sluggish in the first half and then play a good second half,” said senior guard Josh Richardson. “Like we saw against VCU, if we played two good halves against VCU, I think we could’ve won that game, but we dug ourselves too deep a hole.”
But at least for part of one night, the Vols did get to experience something positive and something they can build on. There might still be some dark days ahead, but Thursday at least gave a glimpse of what could be.