Heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Florida Gators, the Tennessee Volunteers expected a physical, gritty game in front of a raucous crowd at the O’Connell Center. Hostile environment √. Physical √ . Win √ . When the dust settled in Gainesville, the Vols remained undefeated in conference play (3-0) with a hard-fought 78-67 win.
Different Player, Different Night
Fifteen games in, Rick Barnes has seen different players step up on different nights. Sure, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield continue to carry the load, as the two lead the SEC in scoring at No.1 and No.2. Yet the Vols continue to get great secondary production from a bevy of role players. Coming off back-to-back 20 point games, junior Jordan Bowden again came up huge with 17 points off the bench (more on his play a bit later). Tennessee’s second-team has also received an injection of production with the recent return of point guard Lamonte Turner. After chipping in 9 points in Tuesday’s win over Missouri, Turner scored in double digits against the Gators with 12. Meanwhile John Fulkerson and Kyle Alexander produced some huge offensive rebounds in the second half to give the Vols second-chance opportunities.
Tennessee players like to sport wristbands with the acronym, “INAM,” standing for “It’s not about me.” This is a team that seems to truly exemplify this attitude. For someone like Jordan Bowden, an early season demotion to the bench could have prompted a disgruntled response from the experienced upperclassmen. Instead, Bowden’s play off the bench has sparked Tennessee in three straight SEC W’s.
A Tale of Two Halves from Deep
Florida came out firing from deep. The Gators started red-hot, making nine 3’s in the game’s first 20 minutes. While some were wide-open looks off defensive breakdowns, different players made some tough, contested shots with hands in their faces. Nevertheless, Tennessee went into the break only down three points. In the second half, Florida cooled off — making only three triples the rest of the way.
The second half saw Tennessee play much improved on-ball defense. In particular, Lamonte Turner and Yves Pons clamped down on the Gators’ guards, forcing Florida into tough jumpers. Florida guard KeVaughn Allen made three 3’s in the first half but only two the rest of the way. Tennessee beat Florida on the boards, 36-28, and had 10 second-chance opportunities off missed shots. For the game, the Vols held Florida to 35% shooting after a blistering first half. A stingy defense that battles on the boards is a good recipe for success come March.
Today’s brand of basketball arguably epitomizes no phrase more than “shooters shoot.” (See Steph Curry and James Harden). For best buds with self-proclaimed nicknames “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” how about Closers Close? Plagued by foul trouble for much of the second half, Admiral swished a back-breaking corner three off a feed from Williams with 45 seconds to play. The made basket put the Vols up 5 and the Gators to sleep.
Unfortunately, Schofield’s absence for long stretches over foul trouble continued the troubling trend of seeing one member of the two-headed monster flirt with disqualification. Williams fouled out of games against Kansas and Gonzaga earlier in the season. If Tennessee is going to make a deep run in the tournament come March, it will need its two best players on the floor at the end of games. With the game on the line, it’s imperative Tennessee puts the ball into the hands of PB&J.
Player of the Game
Jordan Bowden makes this an easy call. He went on a 12-0 run by himself in the second half to keep Tennessee in the game, punctuated by a steal and thunderous dunk (which is the BarnBurner Momentum Changing Play of the Game). After starting the season tentatively — play that prompted Barnes to bring him off the bench — Bowden continues to hunt his shot since the start of SEC play. In Tennessee’s undefeated start in conference, Bowden is averaging 19 points per game. With excellent scoring options in Williams/Schofield/Jordan Bone, an aggressive Bowden as the fourth option makes the Vols tough to beat.
12 straight points from JB
🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥#Vols grab the lead
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) January 13, 2019
The win over the Gators tied the Vols for first place in the SEC with Ole Miss. The Vols return home to Knoxville for their next two games (Ark 1/15 and Ala 1/19) after having two straight contests on the road.
At 14-1, this feels like it’s shaping up to be a special season in Knoxville. That said, there is a lot of ball left to be played. The Vols should expect every conference foe to give them their best shot, particularly in a hostile environment like Florida’s on the road. To stay near the top of the league standings and in the running for a high NCAA tournament seed, Tennessee must bring it night in and night out.
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Banner Image: Matt Stamey/AP