Tennessee defeated Eastern Kentucky, 84-49, Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols started slow offensively but crawled out to a double digit halftime lead thanks to elite defense.
The Vols broke the game open with a 10-0 run to start the second half with eight of them coming from transfer guard Tyreke Key.
Tennessee’s newcomers led the way offensively against the Colonels as Julian Phillips tallied 17 points and Key tallied 16 points. They each did it on 10 shots from the field.
The win marked Tennessee’s seventh straight since its loss against Colorado in Nashville last month. Tennessee now prepares for back-to-back challenging matchups against No. 13 Maryland in Brooklyn and No. 10 Arizona in Tucson.
Here’s everything Rick Barnes said following the win.
On the difference at the start of the game and start of the second half
“Obviously, when you think about Eastern Kentucky, you think about the way they play and the style. We haven’t played against anybody that has gone at us like that for that long. As much as we tried to work on simulating it in practice yesterday, I thought the very first play of the game, we knew what they were going to do. Threw a bad pass to start the game. Then Tyreke (Key) got it and didn’t do what he was supposed to do. He threw it back to Olivier (Nkamhoua). Just didn’t get off to a good start there. I thought the second half, in a game like this, it is not so much about running offense as it is about playing offense. Guys looking where they are supposed to be looking opposed to — I thought everyone was putting so much pressure on Zakai (Zeigler) to dribble the ball across. When you think about it, I don’t know if there has been a game where our point guard picked up (fouls), they fouled him 10 times. We are better when we move it, pass it and cut. We had a couple much better plays in the second half because that is what we had talked about trying to get done. I think you still have to give Eastern Kentucky (credit). It is a terrific coach. I have known him for a while. What impresses me and I think I said it the other night, those guys are getting those teams ready to play in their leagues. The fact that they believe in their system and they came in here and ran it and ran it hard. They turned us over in the first half. They turned us over. We helped them some in the first half, but we have to give them credit for it. The second half, I thought we did a better job. We kept telling them whether they are up 20 or down 20, they are not going to stop playing and they did.”
On the defense in the three-game home stand and how they can keep improving
“Consistency from certain guys. We keep talking about we can’t have any weak links in the chain. We still have some guys that we have talked to about — that is why we are taking guys in and out of the game. We have talked about it enough, you guys can’t keep making the same mistakes. A lot of it is post players not doing their job there. Other guys doing things that we don’t practice. Just a lack of discipline. We are getting closer. We are not where we can be. We still need some guys to get a little bit more serious about it.”
On what makes this team so effective at getting to the free throw line
“The fact I think we are trying to attack and play. We want to be organized with what we are doing on offense but when you are playing the game and it is getting with traps coming from all over, you have to be able to play and create some of that. Some of it is knowing the teams that play will love to see you sell it for a quick three. We kept telling our guys if you are locked and loaded with the shots that we practice, we want you to shoot it and go rebound it. I thought tonight we did another good job of rebounding the ball. I would like to make more of those. First half, I think we were 6-for-19 inside the two. We missed four point-blank layups. You make those, you are 10-for-19. It is different. That is eight points at the rim that we left out of there. We have to have improvement there. Those shots, you have to make. I am talking about point-blank shots. I am not talking about somebody between you and the basket where it is difficult. When you have a point-blank shot, you have to make it.”
On if he liked Tyreke Key’s aggressiveness
“You know what, I did. Start of the game, knowing they were going to come and pressure. Again, I go back, Tyreke, he’s played nine, 11 games with us. He went a year and a half without playing. He’s never, ever been asked to handle the ball the way we’re asking him to do it now. With Santi (Vesocvi) being out, with Josiah (Jordan James) being out, two guys that we rely on to handle the ball, I think he hasn’t been able to totally get settled into the role that I think he’ll eventually play. But yet I think it’s been really good for him, because I think he’s proven he’s much more than a guy that can just get going on the offensive end. He is getting better defensively. He is certainly making the effort to get better defensively. But in terms of handling the ball as much as we’ve been asking him to do it, that’s all new to him. As this game wore on, we kept telling him, before Santi went down, Santi had taken 30 more shots than Tyreke. That was because Tyreke was putting Santi in some pretty tough situations at the end of the clock, where Tyreke should’ve shot the ball opposed to making the extra pass. He’s going to keep getting better. Like I said, this is all new to him, too. I think that he and Julian both will just keep understanding it the more they can be out there.”
On being up 11 at halftime despite shooting poorly
“Well, again, that’s part of the game and we talked about that. I was on the radio talking about it. Everybody, I can’t tell you how many people said to me, man, if that team shoots the ball, they can beat anybody. That’s 200 teams in the country. If you’re shooting, making shots, yeah, you can beat anybody. On the nights that you can’t make shots, can you find a way to win a game? You play Kansas, you turn it over 24 times, you find a way to win the game. That’s part of basketball. I wish we could hit them all. My college coach used to say all the time he believed in the perfect game. I don’t think there’s ever been one, but the fact is, coaches, we all think that. We’d like to think guys can make shots and this and that. If shots aren’t going in, you’ve got to find a way to play just like in a game like this. This is a game where you don’t run offense, you’ve got to play it. When you’re open, you shoot it. If not, what we keep talking about, always, the first thing we talk about, is our defense. Are we rebounding the ball? We believe if we can be tough, hard-nosed on the defensive end and rebound the ball on both ends that we’ll find a way. At halftime, I thought those, our players, did a really good job of talking amongst themselves. Let’s just execute what we know we’re supposed to do. And the start of the second half, they certainly did that.”
On if they feel comfortable with where Josiah-Jordan James is health wise and if he thinks his shooting will improve
“There’s no doubt he’s going to shoot the ball well. I mean every time it leaves his hand, it looks like it’s going to go in. He’s on the clock. We had him on a clock tonight — 17 minutes. We knew we wanted to try to get him a five-, six-minute run in there. Those things I don’t worry about with him. I like the fact that I think he sees the game. He was a difference guy early in the game passing the ball, the pressure. You can get him the ball in the middle of the floor, with his length and his ability to see over people. He really makes good plays there. We have a plan we’re trying to work him back through. I’m not sure where it will be after (this), where we’ll progress him to. I’m sure after each game he’s doing everything he needs to do. He’s changed his diet, he’s done everything he can to do all he can to try to get himself right.”
On Julian Phillips rebounding
“Well I told him he should have had 13 rebounds. On one possession he had the ball on two or three of them and he’s just going to get so much better, I mean he’s so efficient. He’s a better free throw shooter than he’s shooting it right now. He can really shoot the ball. He is learning the pace of the game. It is hard to guard the way we want to guard. It’s all new to him. He’s obviously played on the perimeter some but mostly in high school he probably played more around the basket with post guys. Now he’s learning how to switch and do some fix it things. Three-point play, I told him all you got to do is look at the scoreboard and know we aren’t going to foul and I said the reason you fouled is that you relaxed for just 0.5 seconds and that’s all people need to get position to go. I think when you look at where he is after where we are right now I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in college basketball. I don’t know if anyone’s affected their team as much as he has.”
On the importance of playing teams that play the way EKU does
“It’s going to be important. Whether you play a team that plays like that all the time or you’re on the road, you’ve got a lead and teams start pressing and the home crowd gets into it. You have to be able to handle that. It’s important to get that (practice) against that because we’re going to see it again, there’s no question. We’ll see that again regardless, by a team that might not do it all the time. We could do it at the end of the game if we needed to. We work on it but that’s not our philosophy all of the time but that’s what I respect about Eastern Kentucky. That’s their philosophy and they do a great job with it. They hung in and played us. They didn’t change and he ran his system against us. We knew they’d play some man, different presses, play some zone, do some switching so it was a really good game for us from that standpoint.”
On if Santiago Vescovi is tracking towards playing against Maryland
“I think he is. I saw today when we were on the other end going through scout he was down on the other end actually shooting the ball some today. (Trainer) Chad (Newman) does a great job. He told me today, he was the first person I saw and he told me he felt better today but he still has a couple more days. Tomorrow we will be off and then we’ll have Friday and Saturday to get ready for that game.”