The Tennessee Volunteers didn't play a game with any drama last weekend at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament in Connecticut.
They did on Friday in Knoxville.
With Josiah-Jordan James and Justin Powell sidelined and with their outside shots simply not falling, the No. 15 Vols trailed Tennessee Tech at halftime before breaking free and subduing the Golden Eagles 80-69 in front of an announced crowd of 16,909 inside Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee seventh-year coach Rick Barnes had hoped to build from the experience of a 71-53 loss to Villanova and an 89-72 whipping of North Carolina, but Friday instead brought another lesson learned in the young season.
"I'm not real happy at all, because some guys at practice yesterday — this game normally gives you exactly what you put into it," Barnes said in a news conference. "The preparation with some of our younger guys yesterday was not what it needed to be, and it showed up in the first half. In the long run, it was probably a better thing for us, because we're going to be in many more games where it's going to be close and we're going to have to really fight for it.
"We definitely got a lot out of this game and learned a lot about ourselves, even though some of it was not so good."
After thrashing the Tar Heels behind the guard trio of Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler, the Vols (4-1) succeeded inside against Tennessee Tech (2-4). Junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua went 8-of-8 from the floor, including 2-of-2 from the 3-point line, to score a team-high 18 points, while freshman forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield added 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Sixth-year senior forward John Fulkerson scored 14 points, going 5-of-9 from the floor and making all four of his free throws.
"We haven't had a dominant post presence since I've been here," Nkamhoua said. "We haven't since Grant (Williams), and I think there is an understanding that there needs to be an inside-out rhythm for how we play. Our best shot selections come when we play inside-out.
"I'm not saying that the bigs need to be shooting it too much more, but we just need to touch it every time or every other time down the court. When we get the ball on the inside, it causes defenses to sink, and it helps us in our offense."
A Victor Bailey layup at the 12:46 mark of the first half gave the Vols a 14-7 lead, but that would be their biggest of the opening 20 minutes. The Golden Eagles hung tough and took their surprising 35-34 halftime lead on a Jr. Clay 3-pointer with one second left.
The Golden Eagles were 3-of-5 from long range during the first half, while the Vols were a woeful 2-of-15.
"At halftime, we went into the locker room and talked to each other and realized that we weren't playing how we practiced," Nkamhoua said. "We weren't executing how we expected to execute."
Said Huntley-Hatfield: "We just had to start pounding them inside. Our shots weren't really falling, so we tried to feed our big men, and we executed."
A Clay layup with 14:38 remaining gave Tennessee Tech its last lead at 47-46, as Tennessee went on an 18-4 run that was capped by a Chandler dunk with 6:51 left that made it 64-51. The Golden Eagles pulled within 66-60 on a pair of Daniel Ramsey free throws with 4:19 remaining, but the Vols responded with a 10-2 surge that culminated with a Vescovi 3-pointer with 1:48 left for their largest lead at 76-62.
Vescovi had 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
"He's become a complete player, and I think he's one of the most underrated guards in the country right now," Barnes said. "He didn't have a good shooting day today, and there are other days where he won't miss, but he's learned how to impact a game in other ways."
Clay finished with a game-high 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range. The former McCallie School standout entered Friday just 4-of-30 from long distance this season.
"This state has great basketball, and I've said that before," Barnes said. "They gave us all we wanted and more."
The Vols return to action when they host Presbyterian (5-2) at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Fulkerson was asked afterward about being on the floor with four freshmen at one point of the first half.
"I'm trying to get community service hours in for babysitting," he said.