KNOXVILLE — At a very slender 6-foot-5 and 181 pounds, Darius Thompson is fairly unassuming when he steps out onto a basketball floor.
Yet the Tennessee freshman was hard to miss during some key stretches of the Volunteers' win Friday night.
Though the Murfreesboro product scored just five points, he recorded five steals and seven assists and sparked a scoring spurt in each half as Tennessee defeated Tennessee State 88-67 at Thompson-Boling Arena for its third straight win since the season-opening loss at Xavier.
"In high school I had problems with defense, and in college, when I first got here, I was really bad," Thompson said after playing a productive 24 mintues. "Defense was really harder to me, but then I just keep practicing and get better.
"I've got some ways to go to be a lockdown defender. I think I'm good, the best right now, at playing the passing lanes. I think I've got to work on when my man has the ball and guarding him, but off the ball I think I'm pretty good at it."
Thompson proved that in the first half's decisive moments.
With the winless Tigers hanging with the Vols through the game's first 11 minutes, Thompson stole the ball near midcourt and soared in for a two-handed dunk. On the next trip down the floor, the long-armed freshman stripped a TSU player as he went up for a shot and threw an outlet pass to Jordan McRae for a breakaway slam.
"I thought he played well," said third-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin, who plucked Thompson, a one-time Vanderbilt commitment, from Blackman High School. "He does a good job, even in practice, of getting in the passing lanes, getting steals. You're talking about a guy that's 6-foot-4, almost 6-foot-5, but he's very crafty.
"He has a good feel for it and anticipates well, and he uses his length with smaller guys."
One of Thompson's two baskets came on a layup after he created a steal off the Vols' full-court press, and it was part of a 10-2 spurt Tennessee used to take a 16-point lead.
"That's one thing about Darius," said wing Armani Moore, who chipped in nine points in 16 minutes off the bench. "I mean, he's very good at keeping his composure. He's always calm. He nevers lets the defender speed him up. He always keep his same pace, and I think that's what's most important about Darius. I feel like he does a great job of seeing the court.
"He stays at one pace and makes things happen."
Tennessee State closed the first half on a 11-3 run to trail by just eight, and the Tigers were within 45-38 early in the second half when the Vols attacked the basket on four consecutive trips. Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, who had 16 points and eight rebounds, each hit a pair of free throws.
McRae, who scored 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting to lead Tennessee in scoring for the fourth time in four games this season, converted a three-point play and another two free throws in a 9-0 spurt that essentially put the game away.
Tennessee shot 55 percent from the field, made 22 of 28 free throws, scored 16 fastbreak points and added 16 points off TSU turnovers.
Thompson's best play of the night actually didn't show up on the box score. With the Vols in transition, McRae laced a sharp pass to a cutting Thompson, who hot-potatoed the ball as he was going out of bounds underneath the basket to Moore, who missed the layup before putting back the miss.
After hitting two foul shots, Thompson got a nice ovation from the announced attendance of 15,134.
The Vols like Thompson's ability, and he flashed some of the reasons why Friday.
"Darius can play the 1, the 2 and the 3 [positions]," McRae said. "Him coming out there, we know what he brings on defense. He's got really fast hands, so we know he can pass really well. He hasn't really shown it yet, but Darius is a really great 3-point shooter. Just having Darius out there is pretty big for us."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 ...