Rick Barnes knew his team had its hands full with a season opening matchup at home against Chattanooga on Friday night.
The Mocs certainly lived up to the hype, defeating Tennessee 82-69, spoiling the Vols’ home opener.
Chattanooga came in to Thompson-Boling Arena and looked like an SEC team playing a mid-major. It was Tennessee’s first home-opening loss since 1991, breaking a 25-game win streak.
Jordan Bone drove at the Chattanooga defense early and often. The freshman from Nashville scored the first six points for the Vols by the first media break in the first half, and wouldn’t stop there. Bone finished the game with 21 points, 8-of-14 shooting, and one assist. Bone played 31 minutes in his first career regular season start.
Tennessee’s stingy defense would help them early. Chattanooga went on a scoring drought of 3:38, ending just shy of midway through the first half. But once Chattanooga caught fire from deep, it was a completely different game.
UTC took its first lead of the game with 6:10 to play in the first half after back-to-back 3s. The Mocs began the game 0-for-6 from behind the arc, but found their shooting touch quickly. Chattanooga would hit its next four threes, and finish the game 5-for-18 after a rough start.
Tennessee frustrated Chattanooga’s offense early, but the pressure didn’t last long.
UTC found success driving to the basket and getting easy points on the baseline. Tennessee did not have an answer for Justin Tuoyo, who led all scorers with 22 points, a majority of those coming from dunks.
Barnes said in order to prevent those easy baskets, the guards have to do a better job stopping the ball
“We did a better job on the boards, but in our perimeter defense we’re getting beat easily,” Barnes said. “They were coming downhill against our guards and we didn’t put up enough resistance.”
Staring forward Kyle Alexander (7 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks) said he’s partly to blame for Chattanooga’s easy buckets.
“Part of that is my fault because I shouldn’t step up from the basket to help and leave my guy right there,” Alexander said. “We’re definitely going to have to work on our on-ball defense a little bit. I don’t think it’s specifically anybody’s fault. When guys are getting hockey assists for dunks it’s definitely a collective thing.”
While Alexander was critical of his own defensive performance, Barnes was proud of the way his sophomore forward played, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.
“I thought Kyle gave us a great night, he’s really improved a lot,” Barnes said. “He got caught back there a lot because of our guards, and had to try to make two plays at once.”
Lack of Defense Stifles Transition Offense
Tennessee’s inability to stop the ball defensively made it harder to get out in transition and score easy buckets on the fast break. Tennessee shot 33%, and only made one 3-pointer on 16 attempts for the entire game. Tennessee was 0-for-9 from 3-point-range in the second half. The Vols finished with four fast break points.
Barnes said the solution on offense starts at the point guard position.
“Jordan Bone is learning to play college basketball,” Barnes said. “It’s up to him to get the ball down the court. We needed to get some stops too, to get out and run. We need Jordan Bone to get the ball down the floor quicker. He’s not there yet to do that, but he’ll learn.”
Bone said he felt the most comfortable in the transition offense.
“I didn’t think getting the ball up the floor was a problem,” Bone said. “I feel like we could’ve run more plays. The transition was very effective.”
Tennessee’s half-court offense struggled, due in large part to a poor shooting performance. In an early November game, Rick Barnes felt like his team was confused by Chattanooga’s veteran defense.
“They’ve played together for a long time,” Barnes said. “We just stopped moving.”
Senior forward Robert Hubbs scored 11 points, but was just 4-of-13 from the field.
Barnes said some of Tennessee’s offensive struggles trace back to a rough night for Hubbs, the senior leader.
“We need Robert (Hubbs) to be more active when he doesn’t have the ball,” Barnes added. “He had a tough night shooting the ball. We bobbled the ball coming off screens. I didn’t feel like we worked hard enough offensively. Everybody’s waiting around like ‘What’s next?'”
Every time Tennessee would find an offensive rhythm, Chattanooga would kill the momentum with a dunk.
“It’s annoying,” Kyle Alexander said. “That’s something that we’re going to have to go through the film and find a way to fix that.”
Up next for Tennessee, Appalachian State comes to town next Tuesday. Then the Vols will head to the Maui Invitational for their Thanksgiving tournament.
Barnes said his team is ready for the challenge of a tough upcoming schedule and trip to Hawaii.
“We’re going to be ok,” Barnes said. “We played a team in midseason form. We won’t be favored one time in Maui, but that’s ok. I think the schedule is going to help us. It’s a tough opener.”