EAST LANSING, Mich. — There was a lot for Tennessee coach Rick Barnes to like about his team’s 89-88 exhibition win over Michigan State in Sunday afternoon’s charity exhibition game.
The Vols jumped out to a 17-1 lead in front of a sold out Breslin Center. Tennessee’s two incoming transfers, who the Vols added for their offense, totaled 48 points. Jahmai Mashack handled the ball well with Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi unavailable.
But what did Barnes like most? The way his team responded to every run Michigan State made.
“That was probably the biggest takeaway for us was just that,” Barnes said. “You know Michigan State’s going to keep fighting back and do what they do. But that was, we seemed to have an answer to it. I’m happy with our guys because I didn’t know how we were gonna respond.”
Tennessee led by 16 points less then five minutes into the game. But Michigan State made it a game by halftime, cutting the Vols’ lead to three points at the intermission. The Spartans’ runs kept coming ferociously in the second half and Tennessee kept having answers.
Michigan State’s 6-0 run cut Tennessee’s lead to one less than two minutes into the second half. The Vols responded with a 9-0 run including a Jahmai Mashack dunk and triple.
MSU guard Tyson Walker went on a 7-0 run to cut Tennessee’s lead to one point with four minutes remaining. The Vols responded with a 6-0 run.
Then most notably, Tennessee fumbled the ball late and a five-point lead turned into a tie game in the final 12 seconds. But the Vols remained calm, getting the ball inbounds quickly as Jordan Gainey got into the front court and drew a foul with 1.9 seconds remaining. The USC Upstate transfer missed the first but nailed the second to give Tennessee the win.
“This was pretty much like a real game to us,” Knecht said postgame. “We took it real, so we was just all locked in ready to play. We knew they were gonna punch us and we were just ready to punch ’em back.”
Tennessee responding the way they did consistently was impressive enough. It was even more impressive doing it in front of a sell out crowd, against a top five team and without your two Preseason All-SEC guards. But that’s what Tennessee did.
Turnovers were rampant for both teams (2o for UT, 17 for MSU) which is to somewhat be expected at this time of year. But Barnes was happy with his team’s response. Particularly junior Jahmai Mashack who was shaky in the first half before steadying Tennessee with the way he handled the ball and a few big buckets in the second half.
“Jahmai Mashack really did a good job when you think about what he had to do,” Barnes said. “And he carried a big load today with those guys constantly coming at him. But again, what they did is what I hope we can work ourselves into because it is effective. It affects teams and again, I know we’ll learn from it.”
It was just a charity exhibition game in October. Tennessee didn’t win the SEC and Michigan State didn’t miss the NCAA Tournament. But this also wasn’t Tennessee’s exhibition win over Gonzaga in front of 300 fans last season in Frisco.
Tennessee took everything Michigan State threw at them in front of a capacity crowd of 14,759 and pulled out a win without two of its best players. That’s not everything, but it is a start for these Vols.
“No, it didn’t feel like one,” Gainey said of the exhibition. “It felt more of a Final Four game, National Championship. Any postseason March game. And it was amazing. It was fun and it was just, they played great, we played great and it was just a great experience to have in this atmosphere.”