Tennessee did just enough to outlast Kansas State on Saturday afternoon in Thompson Boling Arena. The Vols came into the game as two-point favorites, and while they didn’t cover the spread, they did emerge victorious in a 65-64 victory over the Wildcats in front of an announced crowd of 14,111.
With Dom Woodson out to “focus on his academics,” the Vols leaned on balanced scoring, stingy defense and a big night from Josh Richardson to put this one in the win column. Here are five takeaways from the game:
Forced Turnovers: The Wildcats were able to claw back into this game with some late threes in the final minutes, but it was Tennessee’s defensive pressure throughout the game that gave the Vols the cushion that allowed them to absorb the late run. The Vols held Kansas State to 40% shooting from the floor, but, more importantly, forced the boys from Manhattan into 22 turnovers – including 12 steals – with a relentless defensive attack. Kansas State came into the game averaging 12 turnovers per game, so the pressure that Tennessee applied clearly impacted the way that KSU likes to play. It is also worth noting that KSU starters accounted for 19 of the teams’ 22 turnovers, including a team-high five from leading scorer Marcus Foster.
Tale of two halves: After the first half ended with a combined 42 points on the scoreboard, the second half featured a much faster pace. Tennessee went into the half with a 25-17 lead, but would need every one of their 40 second half points to escape tonight’s game with a win. After a cold start to the game from the three-point line, the Wildcats closed with a fury by hitting five-of-six treys in the final 1:41 of game time to bring their second half total to 47 points. Obviously, each game features it’s own unique set of circumstances, but after Tennessee’s recent losses to Kansas and Marquette – games in which they really struggled in the second half – Donnie Tyndall’s group deserves some credit for doing just enough to win a close game after stringing together a couple of not-so-great performances in the second half.
Josh Richardson: On a night when Tennessee needed every single point they could get, and the offense wasn’t exactly flourishing, Josh Richardson stepped up and led his team on both ends of the floor. Richardson would lead all Vols with 17 points and was the only Tennessee player to reach double digits. Richardson also led the Vols in minutes-played with 36 (the next closest was Kevin Punter wit 30), while also adding three assists, one block and three steals to his stat line. Richardson was all over the court on both ends and is clearly developing into the leader that Donnie Tyndall needs him to be. The senior from Edmond, Oklahoma was seen directing traffic on offense and calling out teammates for a lack of effort on the defensive end of the floor in the second half when Kansas State was trying to fight their way back into the game. In what will go down as Tennessee biggest win of the season to this point, Richardson was the main reason why the Vols were able to get past Kansas State on Saturday.
Hidden points: Just like football has a “hidden yardage” stat that coaches often refer to, basketball is no different, and the Vols won handily in those categories against Kansas State. The Vols would outscore the Wildcats 28-14 in the paint, 17-16 at the free throw line and Tennessee’s bench would pour in 26 points in this game to KSU’s six on the night. The final scoreboard is all that matters in the end, but if the Vols can continue to get this type of production moving forward then they should be able to compete with most of the teams on their schedule on any given night. This game was actually closer than it should have been when you consider how well Tennessee played in these given areas, which brings us to our final observation from the game…
Finish the game: Tennessee had a 10-point lead in this game with one minute to play, but nearly let it slip away thanks to turnovers, missed free throws and a lack of effort on the defensive end of the floor. The Vols would miss four free throws in the final sixty seconds, while also allowing Kansas State’s Marcus Foster to free himself up for four three pointers that all found the bottom of the net. They nearly gave up another three point attempt that would have been the difference in the game, but Armani Moore climbed the ladder (after turning the ball over on the other end) to get a hand on Justin Edwards’ shot attempt that fell harmlessly into the arms of Josh Richardson. Donnie Tyndall was clearly proud of his team’s effort in his post game interview, but mentioned that his team has to “play to win” down the stretch, and not simply “play not to lose.” The football analogy will hit home with most Vol fans, and the first year coach is absolutely right about the type of mentality his team needs to develop. They deserve to celebrate this win and all that will come with it, but Tyndall will be sure to relay to his team the importance of finishing a game with the same focus and energy that they start with.