Tennessee faced its greatest test of the young season opening SEC play at No. 12 Missouri Wednesday. The Vols aced their first road trip of the season, dominating Missouri 73-53.
After a week off around Christmas, the Vols came out firing using an 18-2 run to take a 21-4 lead in the game’s first eight minutes.
“I think just being locked in is what helped us the most,” guard Santiago Vescovi said of the quick start. “Just having everyone on the same page, everyone having a lot of effort and just playing ‘D’ really hard I think really helped us too.”
Tennessee’s defense suffocated Missouri in the first half holding the Tigers to 25 points. Missouri didn’t reach 10 points until the 8:29 mark but was able to get to the charity stripe, knocking down 10 free throws on its way to a 25 point half.
Tennessee held Missouri to 32% shooting from the field and 14% from three-point range. Missouri improved a little offensively in the second half, but not much as the Tigers ended 36% from the field and 19% from three-point range.
“Our goal was to do just that, to try and get back and get our defense set we could play against their half court offense,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “They can be very lethal in the open court so we knew we had to get back but we didn’t want to give up our offensive rebounding at the sake of getting more guys back. Overall, it was a really good team effort defensively.”
The second half started similar to the first with Tennessee opening the half on a quick 7-2 run to push its lead back to 18 points. After a Missouri timeout, the Tigers went on a 4-0 run but from then on it was all Tennessee.
“Missouri’s a really good team,” forward Yves Pons said. “We knew when we came back for the second half we knew we had to be locked in. They won’t give up. They won’t give up on a play, they’re going to keep fighting, so we had to be locked in. Keep executing, play defense and play hard on the offensive floor and that’s what we did.”
The Vols would use the next 7:22 to go on a 20-6 run, pushing its lead to a game high 28 points. Five Vols scored during the stretch including five points from Pons who scored a season high 13 points.
It was Pons best offensive night of the season, making five-of-nine shots. However, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year made his biggest impact on that end of the court.
The senior from France posted a season high four blocks and clearly had Tigers feeling his presence around the rim.
“I thought Yves was terrific tonight,” Barnes said. “I think he got in his own head a little bit when he was missing some three point shots. … He was terrific. I think it’s a big boost for him mentally. He’s a guy we can play through, we have a number of guys like that, but we’re all just really excited for Yves.”
Tennessee’s offense wasn’t perfect in Columbia, having two field goal droughts of over four minutes, but it was a strong showing as the Vols were the first team to record over a point per possession (1.09) against Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers this season.
The Vols shot 50% from the field and an impressive five-of-seven from beyond the arc.
Vescovi led the way for Tennessee on the offensive end, pouring in three of those triples and a team high 15 points on an efficient five-of-seven shooting. Jaden Springer and Pons weren’t far behind with 13 points.
As it has been all season, balance was the strength of Tennessee’s offense with five Vols scoring nine or more points. One of Tennessee’s only weaknesses on the night was its 58% free throw percentage, an abysmal mark for a team that’s been good at the charity stripe this season.
He didn’t light up the stat sheet, scoring just two points on three shots, but Josiah Jordan James did all the little things important, recording four assists, three rebounds, three steals and one block while playing excellent defense.
Tennessee will look to stay unbeaten Saturday when the Vols host Alabama to Thompson Boling Arena. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. ET and the game will be broadcasted on ESPN2.