Tennessee improved to 8-1 Wednesday night gritting past Eastern Kentucky with ease in a, 84-49, victory.
The Vols’ defense was elite like it usually is and after a slow offensive start, Tyreke Key sparked the Vols to a strong second half.
Here’s three quick takeaways on Tennessee’s seventh straight win.
Sluggish First Half On Both Sides
Tennessee struggled to get its offense going in the first half against Eastern Kentucky, not reaching double digit points until the 11 minute mark in the first half. Eastern Kentucky ran a full court press and trapping zone defense that gave the Vols some issues most notably their 10 first half turnovers.
Zakai Zeigler particularly struggled against the extended defense, thrice turning it over with only one first half assist.
“They definitely played a different style than any team we’ve played up to this point in the season,” Julian Phillips said postgame. “They were real physical, aggressive trapping the ball and stuff like that, but once we got adjusted to it, we finally figured out what we needed to do and went on from there.”
“Just didn’t get off to a good start there,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “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.
The Colonels’ trapping zone defense did allow Tennessee to get open shots and plenty of them from the perimeter. However, the Vols couldn’t get perimeter shots to go, making just two-of-15 three-point attempts in the first half. While the perimeter shooting numbers were most glaring, the Vols missed plenty of bunnies at the rim and made less then half of their shots at the rim in the opening half.
Tennessee’s offensive saving grace was its rebounding (more on that in a minute) and its ability to get to the free throw line. The Vols took 17 first half free throws on their way to 41 for the game.
Getting to the charity stripe is turning into a strength for this Tennessee team. Freshman Julian Phillips seems to find his way there more than anyone else and it continued against the Colonels where Phillips made seven-of-10 attempts at the free throw line.
While Tennessee’s offensive struggled, its defense did not. The Vols did to EKU what they’ve done to so many this season. Tennessee shot 24% from the field and 13% from three-point range with 10 turnovers in the first half. Eastern Kentucky shot 21% from the field and 12% from three-point range with nine turnovers in the first half.
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Tennessee Dominates Offensive Glass
While Eastern Kentucky’s zone defense created issues for Tennessee, it did have a flaw the Vols were able to exploit. Like any zone defense, Eastern Kentucky’s made it hard for the Colonels to control the glass. Combine that with Tennessee’s size advantage and the Vols had an exploitable mismatch.
And exploit it they would.
Tennessee’s offensive rebounding was its saving grace in the first half. The Vols totaled 11 first half boards and turned them into 14 of their 32 first half points.
Rick Barnes’ team didn’t duplicate the same success in the second half but still had plenty of success on the offensive glass, ending the game with 20 offensive rebounds and 25 second chance points.
“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,” Barnes said. “I thought tonight we did another good job of rebounding the ball.”
Plenty of Vols had success rebounding including Uros Plavsic and Josiah-Jordan James but no one had more success on the boards than Julian Phillips.
The freshman is improving rapidly early in the season and that’s been apparent on the glass as much as anywhere else. Phillips totaled eight first half rebounds on his way to totaling 10 including five on the offensive end. Barnes was pleased with the effort but knew there was more out there.
“Well I told him he should have had 13 rebounds,” Barnes said.
Tyreke Key Sparks Second Half Explosion
Tennessee had a comfortable lead at halftime but had failed to truly break open the game due to a poor offensive half. Tyreke Key didn’t wait long to push Tennessee’s lead to 20-plus points in the second half.
Key had an up-and-under three-point play on Tennessee’s opening possession of the second half and that was just the start of a dominant stretch for the super senior. Key scored eight of the second half’s first 10 points as the Vols opened the frame up with a 10-0 run that they’d never look back from.
The Indiana State transfer went on to score 12 second half points to finish with a game-high 17 points. The offensive aggressiveness Key showed is exactly what Tennessee’s coaches have been looking for out of him and Barnes said as much postgame.
However, Key’s second half show was cut short. Key exited the game with six-plus minutes remaining holding his right knee. Key did not return to the game but said he was simply dealing with a cramp during his postgame availability.
While Tennessee’s offense still wasn’t perfect in the second half, it was much better than it was in the first. The Vols scored 52 second half points in the win.
“We are better when we move it, pass it and cut,” Barnes said. “We had a couple much better plays in the second half because that is what we had talked about trying to get done.”
Tennessee travels to Brooklyn where it’ll face No. 13 Maryland in the Hall of Fame Invitation. Tip-off between the Vols and Terrapins is at 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday. FOX Sports 1 is broadcasting the game.