KNOXVILLE - Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin insists he's not sending messages to his players when he shakes up his starting five.
Trae Golden politely might disagree with his coach.
The Volunteers' point guard lost his spot as a starter, but the sophomore responded to his demotion by scoring a team-high 16 points with six rebounds and five assists in UT's 73-62 win against Georgia at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday night.
"He might not be sending a message, but it sends a message still," Golden said. "It definitely sent me a message that I've got to do things better, and that's what I'm going to do."
Martin, UT's first-year coach, said he expected he'd have made more than the three lineup changes he has this season. It's not something he does often, much less to one of the Vols' most important players. Golden leads UT (11-12, 3-5 SEC) in scoring and entered Saturday's game tied for second in the league in assists, but that had little to do with Martin's decision.
"I just felt like Trae needed to work harder on both ends of the floor and really lead us as a point guard," he said. "Not necessarily production and points and all that, but his approach and his intensity level on the defensive side of the ball and really taking pride in it."
Martin hardly got anything defensively from his team in the game's opening minutes. Georgia (10-12, 1-7) might have entered the game last in the SEC in points (60.6) and field-goal percentage (.389), but the Bulldogs made four of their first five 3-point attempts and went without a turnover for the game's first 16 minutes. Dustin Ware's third trey of the first half put Georgia up 27-19 five minutes before halftime.
"I was upset," said UT forward Jeronne Maymon, who had 15 points and eight rebounds. "I was like, 'Why are they hitting everything?' Every time they shot one, it was going in."
The Vols closed the half on an 11-1 run, which included three Golden baskets. Georgia opened the second half on an 11-2 spurt of their own, but 3-pointers by Jordan McRae and Golden erased the deficit. UT led by one after Georgia freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's jumper with 8:15 left.
That's when McRae finished off the Bulldogs.
The wiry sophomore, who scored 14 points, hit one jumper at the shot-clock buzzer, canned a trey and converted a three-point play with 3:25 left that gave UT a 61-51 lead. With Georgia doubling UT's forwards at every post touch, the Vols needed good nights offensively from their guards. In addition to McRae and Golden, McBee chipped in 10 points and Cam Tatum made two 3-pointers.
"They did a good job of making shots, and I thought what was more impressive was our big guys did a good of accepting the double-team and not turning the ball over," Martin said. "It's not an easy thing to do. When you get doubled the whole night, it's hard to really get in the flow as a big guy. From a guard's standpoint, it can be fun if you're able to make shots and get in the lane.
"I thought our big guys did a good job of embracing the double team and finding open guys."
When UT's guards weren't making shots, Maymon was getting Georgia's frontcourt in foul trouble and living at the foul line. The bruising junior made nine of 12 free throws and fouled out Georgia starting forwards Donte' Williams and Marcus Thornton in 12 and 18 minutes, respectively.
Caldwell-Pope led Georgia with 16 points. Ware scored 13 of his 15 before halftime, and Gerald Robinson chipped in 13 for Georgia, which shot just 36 percent following its hot start. Bulldogs coach Mark Fox was ejected after he blew up and picked up two quick technicals fouls with 19 seconds left in the game.
As for Golden, Martin said Saturday was the best game vocally he's had all season, a compliment Golden thankfully accepted after the game.
"I was surprised yesterday when I found out, but it wasn't nothing that was going to dampen my spirits or anything," Golden said. "I'm all about team, and I just want to make sure that we win. That's the biggest goal. If I didn't play a minute tonight, I'd have still been happy.
"We have a lot of goals that we're trying to accomplish, and we have no time for any type of negative attitudes bring us down."