Tuesday night marked the first time this season Tennessee was punched in the mouth at the beginning of a game. And the team responded well to it.
The Vols hadn’t trailed by nine points all season – which is incredible when you consider who UT has played this season – but found themselves down 19-10 to Missouri with 10:49 remaining in the first half. Sparked by Jordan Geist, the Tigers were on an 11-0 run that ended shortly after Rick Barnes called for a timeout to settle his team down.
“They came out and punched us early,” Barnes told reporters following the game. “And it was good for our team.”
Later, Missouri grabbed a 27-18 lead with just over seven minutes to play in the first half. But from the end of that Missouri run, Tennessee proceeded to carve out a 24-4 run of its own to end the half and claim a 42-31 lead at the break.
The lineup that sparked the run? It didn’t include two of the three leading scorers in the SEC. Both Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield played poorly in the first half, and both had to sit on the bench due to foul trouble with two apiece. Williams finished the half with zero points on 0-of-5 shooting and Schofield scored just three points on 1-of-4 shooting.
“During the first timeout, we told our guys, ‘Hey, we told you they were going to come out and get after it,’” Barnes stated. “Then I think we settled in a little bit. Defensively, we got a little bit better.”
It was a smaller lineup of Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, John Fulkerson, and Kyle Alexander that sparked the run. Bone scored 12 points during Tennessee’s dominating stretch, and Bowden chipped in seven. Turner and Alexander both scored six. John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker rotated in-and-out as the fifth piece of the lineup.
“In the first half, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield were non-factors,” Barnes said. “It was the other guys that came.
“I’m proud of the guys when Grant and Admiral were on the bench at the end of the half, to play the way they played.”
Alexander, Bone, and Bowden have been playing well as of late, and Turner took a huge step in the right direction against Mizzou. In his second game back from a shoulder injury and a six-game absence, Turner finished with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting from the three-point line.
Alexander and Bone, though, are playing the best basketball of their Tennessee careers.
Bone was the team’s second-leading scorer, finishing with 17 points, five assists, five rebounds, a block, and a steal in 35 minutes. He was 5-of-10 from the field and had a plus/minus of +29, the highest on the team.
Alexander had the second-highest plus/minus on the team (+22) in his 32 minutes of play. The Canadian pulled down a career-high 17 rebounds – seven of which were on the offensive glass – blocked three shots, picked up two steals, and scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting. It was his third double-double of the season and the fifth of his career. And it marked the second-straight game where he picked up a double-double.
“Kyle Alexander, the last two games, has been phenomenal,” Barnes said of his senior center. “He’s totally focused on playing defense and rebounding and nothing else.
“I think he’s scoring just out of, it’s really amazing, that’s what we tell our guys, don’t get locked in on scoring. Just go play, get lost in the game with your defense and rebounding. He’s done that two games in a row. You see he scored. But he’s not out there looking.”
Along with Alexander, Bowden has really stepped up his play over the last two games. He’s scored 20 points – a point shy of his career-high – in back-to-back games. Against Missouri, Bowden was the team’s leading scorer on 7-of-12 shooting.
“He’s (Bowden) trying to do his job,” Barnes said – which Bowden agreed with following Tennessee’s ninth win in a row.
“Really, it’s transition and defense,” Bowden explained. “Getting stops. (Jordan) Bone getting the ball and he’s pushing it on the offensive end. It’s really easy just running out and going in transition like we practice.”
Everyone is doing their job for the Vols at the moment. It’s why they’re ranked No. 3 in the country and clearly the best team in the SEC as conference play gets under way. While it may be Williams’ and Schofield’s team, it’s been the supporting cast and depth that has led Tennessee to be the first major conference team in the last 20 years to have a 70+ point differential through its first two league games.
“It used to be get Grant (Williams) the ball and all this stuff,” Alexander said of the team’s depth. “Then it was get Grant and AD (Admiral Schofield) the ball. Now, it’s like anyone can try to score. If they try to shut these guys down, we’re going to kill them with these guys.”
Alexander’s explanation epitomizes just why Tennessee is capable of winning a National Championship come March.
As former Ole Miss head coach and current SEC analyst Andy Kennedy put it last night during the Alabama-LSU game:
“Not only is Tennessee a legitimate contender for a National Championship, but they might be the hungriest.”