Tennessee erased a huge early deficit to fight back and make it a game against Gonzaga in Seattle, but came up a couple possession short in the end in an 86-79 loss. Here are five observations from the game:
1. Too much Sabonis: It’s been no secret all year that Tennessee might, at any point, really struggle to defend big skilled men, and Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis certainly exposed the Vols on Saturday evening. The 6-foot-11, 240-pound Lithuanian forward set a new career high in scoring (36 points) and matched his career high in rebounding (16), as the Vols ultimately had no answer for the sophomore. He was an efficient 12 of 16 from the floor, but also did a lot of damage from the free-throw line, knocking down 12 of 15 from there.
2. Early return for Hubbs III: After coach Rick Barnes listed him as “doubtful” for this game after Tennessee’s win over Florida Atlantic on Wednesday night, Robert Hubbs III made somewhat of a surprise appearance in the first half in Seattle, checking in as a reserve after Admiral Schofield started in his spot. Hubbs, who missed the last two games following a minor knee procedure done over the exam break, still clearly isn’t 100%, but he scored three points in 19 minutes of action against Gonzaga. That wasn’t enough to lift UT to a win, but it was a good sign to get him back on the floor to get his feet back under him before SEC play starts in a couple week.
3. First-half struggles leave Vols in a hole: I’ll discuss UT’s comeback in one of the next points, but that second-half spurt might’ve been more productive for the Vols if they hadn’t been so buried in the first. The Vols were sloppy out of the gates during this 11 p.m. ET tip – turning the ball over seven times in the first half, while forcing just one turnover. Gonzaga also controlled the boards early and got to the free-throw line with more consistency, making 10 free throws as compared to UT’s three in the first half. Give UT a lot of credit for continuing to battle, but a 49-33 halftime deficit in a hostile environment is generally too much to overcome.
4. This team won’t quit: Tennessee has played some really rough stretches this year and has been in almost every adverse situation imaginable through 10 games – down by a lot, blowing leads, shorthanded – you name it. But the Vols have been feisty and resilient, rarely looking defeated and almost always finding a way to at least make the game interesting in the closing minutes. Tennessee did just that on Saturday night. After trailing by as many as 19 points, the Vols took the lead at the 9:43 mark of the second half on a Devon Baulkman 3-pointer. They then kept it within a possession all the way to the the 3:45 mark, and it wasn’t really until there was less than a minute to go that it felt like Gonzaga had full control again. Impressive resolve by the Vols in this one, though they must find ways to win away from Thompson-Boling Arena as the season progresses.
5. They are what we thought they were: In more of a big-picture, general observation, Tennessee continues to be the team that many expected it would be. This team plays hard and appears to be maximizing what it has – most expected that with Barnes leading the way. It has a couple proven assets in Kevin Punter (23 points vs. Gonzaga) and Armani Moore (16 points vs. ‘Zags). Others such as Devon Baulkman, Robert Hubbs III (when healthy), Admiral Schofield, Detrick Mostella and Derek Reese have done some good things at times this year. But at the end of the day, this team, thus far, simply lacks the size and the quantity of options to beat really good opponents.
The good news for UT is that some of these tough non-conference opponents have exposed UT’s weaknesses at times and will give the Vols a chance to work on them with SEC play around the corner. They can head into conference play 7-5 if they take care of business over the holidays and in a mediocre SEC, UT should be able to find some wins.
Final box from UT’s 86-79 loss to Gonzaga in Seattle last night pic.twitter.com/thzs7Zk6aq
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) December 20, 2015