KNOXVILLE — There was no massive overhaul for the ailing Tennessee basketball team.
There were, however, two unusual sights Monday night that got the Volunteers back on track following tough losses to Wichita State and North Carolina State.
Leading scorer Jordan McRae scored fewer than 10 points for the first time this season, but Josh Richardson rediscovered his offense and Derek Reese came off the milk carton for a double-double in Tennessee's easy 82-67 win against Morehead State at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Coming into the game, I was real calm," Richardson said after leading the Vols (7-4) with 19 points. "I just knew we had to get a win. We were on a two-game skid, so I just knew we had to play well."
It was Reese -- the forgotten man on Tennessee's bench -- who was the game's biggest story.
In his first action of the season, the 6-foot-8 sophomore scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, both career highs. Shortly after he entered the game, Tennessee took off on an 11-0 run to turn a dicey 16-12 lead into a 15-point margin.
After the Eagles got back to within 10, Reese hit a 3 from the wing and, two possessions later, threw down a two-handed slam off a feed from freshman Darius Thompson that Richardson said had the Vols buzzing in the locker room at halftime.
"They were shocked," Reese said of his teammates. "Just surprised that I dunked it. I'm athletic, but for some reason I don't show it all the time."
Leading 41-30 at the break, Tennessee opened the second half with a 13-0 run, during which Richardson slammed home a dunk after cutting along the baseline.
Reese's 3-pointer from the corner, off a pass from McRae, pushed Tennessee's lead to 23 points a few minutes later.
"He's definitely been playing a lot tougher," Richardson said of Reese. "He's been hitting a lot more shots in practice. I think he's been in the gym a lot more lately, so I'm glad he's got his edge back.
Cuonzo Martin, the Vols' third-year coach, said Reese gave his team a "big spark" after his increased work ethic and level of physical play led to his first playing time of the season.
"He just wasn't at the level he needed to be," Martin said. "If he wasn't making shots, then he had to play harder and be more competitive and have a tougher tone. He's done a good job of that lately."
Martin said he recently received a text message from Reese's mother that read, "Coach, don't give up on him."
Reese laughed when told of the message and said he told her to let him handle the situation.
"I just did what [Martin] wanted me to do to get my opportunity," Reese said.
"I kept working hard, even though it was really tough in the beginning. Some days I just wanted to quit, some days I didn't feel like working out, but I knew that wasn't going to help. I kept praying, and that motivated me to keep working hard."
Jeronne Maymon, who had 16 points and eight rebounds as Tennessee dominated the glass 49-28 against a good rebounding team, said it's "more of a mental thing" with Reese, but the Vols will welcome any added spark they can find after a disappointing start to the season.
Richardson provided that boost early Monday night.
With McRae, who finished with nine points and a career-high-tying five assists, saddled with some first-half foul trouble, Richardson poured in 14 first-half points after scoring just six points in Tennessee's past two games.
He did most of that damage by driving to the rim, though he did hit a 3 and made another jumper from atop the key.
"Josh has got to be aggressive," Martin said. "I don't know how many times I've got to tell the guy to be aggressive. When you're playing 30 minutes a night, I don't know what to tell you. The one thing I tell Josh is don't settle for 3-point shots. Even though's he improved with his shot, don't settle for it.
"Tonight they were open; his feet were set; they presented themselves. Don't aggressively hunt down a 3-point shot. He's a guy that when he's slashing to the rim and attacking, he gets to the free-throw line, the defense breaks down and he's able to find other guys. I think his mental approach was, 'I need to be more aggressive.'"
It was just what Tennessee needed.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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