Tennessee left the SEC Tournament with a bitter taste in its mouth a year ago, and it wasn’t due to the food they consumed on the plane ride home from St. Louis.
Falling to Kentucky in last year’s SEC Championship Game, the Vols opened their quest for redemption with an 83-76 win over Mississippi State at Bridgestone Arena.
Here are some takeaways from Friday’s matchup in Nashville:
Ball movement buoys Tennessee’s offense
The Vols ranked fourth in assists in the SEC during the regular season, and they showed exactly why on Friday.
Although shots weren’t falling early, Tennessee’s ability to find the open man was matched only by its fire and tenacity. Recording 21 assists on 34 made field goals, the Vols found themselves in the midst of a passing clinic.
With 17 of those coming from their starting backcourt, the Vols were in rare form against the Bulldogs.
“When teams have to scout us and we’re making an extra play or getting an assist on almost every possession, we’re hard to beat,” Grant Williams said. “Teams understand that in order to beat us, they have to pick their poison.”
The poison Tennessee spewed out ultimately proved to be too much for Mississippi State to handle, despite the score being knotted at 42-42 early in the second half.
With another matchup against Kentucky looming in the next 24 hours, the Vols couldn’t have asked for a more effective start.
“When we’re sharing the ball and playing for each other, we’re the best Tennessee basketball team,” Kyle Alexander said.
Alexander comes alive
Since Feb. 13, Alexander’s name was called over the loudspeaker countless times due to fouls.
If it was his goal to change that narrative in Nashville, he certainly succeeded in game one.
Alexander finished with 16 points on 8 of 11 shooting, along with nine rebounds. It marked his highest point total since December. The Vols are 11-1 in games when he reaches double figures.
His effort didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates, either.
“He was incredible. When Kyle plays like that, it makes us a different type of team,” Williams said. “Just bringing that confidence to the game is what we need.”
Whether it was tipping in a missed shot or contesting opposing looks, Alexander continued to make plays as Tennessee ceased to relinquish its lead.
It was the same quiet confidence Alexander has boasted all year that shown through as he cracked countless smiles when addressing reporters following the game.
“I know that when I’m at my best it helps this team,” Alexander said. “I’m just glad I was able to go out and do what I did for them tonight.”
Second half surge grounds Bulldogs
Using a 7-0 run to pull themselves within striking distance, Mississippi State found itself all even with Tennessee at 42 with less than 15 minutes to play.
It didn’t last long.
Embarking on a run of their own soon after, the Vols’ lead ballooned to as much as 14 as the Bulldogs appeared helpless to stop the onslaught.
While absent from the final box score, it was the effort plays made on the defensive end that proved to be the biggest difference.
“It started with Lamonte, he was big-time for us on defense,” Jordan Bowden said. “Seeing him dive for the ball really energized us and helped us out on the offensive end.”
Those type of plays were what has been sorely lacking from Turner as of late, but the junior guard was comfortably shifting through his bag of tricks as Tennessee’s lead continued to grow.
Looking to claim their first SEC Tournament Championship since 1979, the Vols will be looking for more of the same as their postseason journey continues.