No. 3 Tennessee completely overwhelmed Georgia on Saturday afternoon, beating the Dawgs 96-50 in their first SEC game of the season.
Jordan Bowden led the team with 20 points, a point away from his career-high. Grant Williams dominated in the paint, scoring 18 points on just 4-of-5 shooting while making it to the free throw line 11 times and hitting nine of those attempts. Admiral Schofield scored 18 as well, grabbing six rebounds and assisting on three buckets. Kyle Alexander recorded another double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds. And point guard Jordan Bone engineered yet another terrific offensive performance, scoring 11 points and tallying five assists.
The gang was incredible, per usual. But they weren’t the story. Neither was the 46-point win that tied the second largest margin of victory over an opponent in Tennessee history.
Lamonte Turner was the story.
“Physically, I felt good,” Turner said following his first action in a game since Tennessee faced Eastern Kentucky on Nov. 28. “I think I gotta get some more reps in. Mentally, I’m as caught up as I am physically.”
Turner checked into the game at the 15:05 mark of the first half. The redshirt junior had missed the last six games due to a shoulder injury. Tennessee fans were well aware of Turner’s absence and had been keeping track of the days until his return. They were sure to let the fan favorite know just how much they missed him when he checked him.
“To see them react like that, it was awesome,” Turner said of the standing ovation he received when he first checked in the game. “It gave me a family feel, made me feel like I was at home, and I loved every second of it.”
Though Turner didn’t know the fans were going to greet him with such a warm reception, Tennessee senior forward Kyle Alexander said it was a testament to just how great Vol fans are.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Alexander said of Turner’s return. “His (Turner) locker is right beside mine, so every day after practice, it’s ‘I wish I could be out there with y’all, I wish I could be out there with y’all.’ It’s great to have him back out there.”
Alexander wasn’t the only one pleased to see Turner return to game action. Rick Barnes knows just how important Turner is to his basketball team. The Florence, Alabama native has been with Barnes since day one and has been as instrumental as anyone in the program’s rise to one of the country’s best.
“We can’t get to our full potential without him,” Barnes said of Turner. “I think everyone was excited to have him back out on the floor today.”
In his return, Turner played 15 minutes, scoring six points on 2-of-5 shooting. He missed all three of his three 3-point attempts, but he had an impact on defense, picking up a steal and deflecting a couple of passes. He added two assists and a rebound.
“If you take away the air ball, I’d give myself a ‘B+,’” Turner said of his performance. “With the air ball, I’d give me a ‘B.’ I didn’t expect to come out tonight and score 20 points or anything like that. I honestly wasn’t even thinking about scoring. I just wanted to come out, play the game, get going and get my wind back.”
The air ball Turner speaks of came on his first official shot of the game. He had swished a three after a dead-ball moments before, but then air-balled his first shot of the game, a corner-three. The shot was too strong, signaling that maybe Turner was too amped up in his return.
“Crazy story for y’all,” Turner told reporters. “I actually had the hiccups for three days straight now. I hiccupped right before I shot the shot.
“I was like, ‘C’mon dude.’ So, when I air-balled it, I wasn’t surprised to be honest with you. I was just glad to get out there and get the first shot out of the way.”
Earlier this week, it didn’t appear Turner was going to play against Georgia. On Wednesday, Barnes said he wasn’t expecting for his shooting guard to be available for Saturday’s game. But following tremendous progress with the shoulder on Thursday and Friday, Barnes, Turner and Chad Newman – Tennessee’s trainer – made the decision during shootaround on Saturday morning that he would play.
“Yesterday (Friday), he practiced a little bit,” Barnes explained. “Chad (Newman) told me yesterday that he did more than he wanted to and I wanted him to.
“He (Newman) said we’ll wait until tomorrow when he wakes up to see how he feels. He came in, and I think he felt like he was ready to do it. It wasn’t until after shootaround [when we decided]. He hasn’t had a lot of practice, but I thought he handled himself really well.”
Turner knew for certain he was good to go during practice on Friday.
“Just being out there with my guys, I felt good,” Turner said. “My shoulder is starting to feel a lot better. The next step was just mentally, making the decision that I’m going to play.”
The mental aspect of the injury is what has been holding Turner back. It’s something that has taken quite some time for him to battle through.
“I’ve wanted to be out there with my teammates,” Turner said. “We’re winning games like this, and it looks so fun, so it’s been kind of tough sitting on the sideline. It’s been frustrating, but I stayed with it, did my therapy, and I’m here now.”
Not being out there with his teammates has bothered Turner. Tennessee is off to one of its best starts in program history, and though the Vols haven’t necessarily needed him in their wins, his teammates have reminded him throughout the process that they’re thinking of him and miss him.
“My teammates are my family,” Turner said. “They’ve been supportive. All of them have been praying for me and have been very supportive of my therapy. They’re always asking me how I’m feeling.”
The focus of Turner’s comeback now shifts to remaining on the court. When he played against Louisville and Kansas during Thanksgiving break, Turner knew he was playing hurt. He was trying to trick himself into feeling better so that he could be on the court for his teammates.
Though last time he returned for just two games, Turner is confident he’ll continue to play from here on out.
“Now I know I’m healthy, and I know I’m feeling a lot better,” Turner said. “I can’t predict the future, but I wanna stay healthy. I think I’ll be fine.”
Whether Turner can string together a couple of games is to be seen. For now, all eyes turn to Tuesday night when Tennessee will travel to Missouri to take on Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers.