Wednesday night fit the mold of an average Tennessee road loss. The Vols started slow, built a big deficit and exerted so much energy getting back into the game that they had nothing left in the tank to win it.
The only difference? It was at home.
The Vols dropped a 65-58 decision to the N.C. State Wolfpack on Wednesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena, proving unable to battle back from a 17-point halftime deficit as UT lost its first home game in 10 months.
Tennessee’s non-conference resume is starting to look like it did during head coach Cuonzo Martin’s first two years, and that’s a bad sign for the Vols’ NCAA Tournament chances.
“You have to dig deep as a ball club,” Martin said. “We didn’t play well in the first half, that’s unlike us. We didn’t compete on both ends of the floor. We didn’t execute. I thought we were a step slow on both ends, and they made shots and made plays.”
Jordan McRae tied a game high with 21 points, but hit just six of his 22 shots, which made for nearly a third of the Vols’ offensive attempts.
Visibly dejected after the loss, UT’s leading scorer pointed some of the blame in his own direction.
“I have to trust my teammates more,” McRae said. "I trust my teammates, but when we get down, I feel like it’s on me to bring us back and I have to trust guys more.”
The Vols started off slow, a trend that is becoming a commonplace for this squad. N.C. State took the lead in the opening seconds and never relinquished it.
Open looks came and went for Tennessee, but they didn’t fall. The Wolfpack game-planned to make the Vols execute from the perimeter, and UT didn’t take advantage, starting 0-for-11 from long range before McRae hit the team’s first three ball some five minutes into the second half.
As a team, the Vols finished 3-for-24 from three-point land. McRae was 3-for-12.
“For the most part, those three-point shots were good looks,” Martin said. “They may have been quick shots or off-the-dribble threes, but for the most part we had some good looks. They allowed our perimeter guys to try and make shots, and we just didn't capitalize.”
N.C. State’s extra attention to the paint paid off as the Wolfpack combined for 12 team blocks, an opponent record at Thompson-Boling Arena. Many of them were rejections of starting frontcourt pair Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes.
Both big men finished with double-doubles—Maymon notched 17 points and 16 rebounds while Stokes added 10 and 13—but struggled mightily with the opponent’s length.
Stokes and Maymon again dominated the offensive boards, amassing more (15) combined than N.C. State’s entire team (13). But it was far from enough to cancel out the Vols’ shooting woes.
“When you’re around the rim, you have to have touch and use the glass,” Martin said. “I just think you have to have touch off the glass and make those shots. But then it gets to the point where you miss a couple, and you start thinking about it.”
The Vols entered the halftime break shooting a woeful 7-for-29 (24.9 percent) as a team and finished 20-for-68 (29.4 percent) from the field altogether.
“We’re just not putting the ball in the basket and we’re not guarding,” McRae said. “It has to be one or the other. If we can’t guard we could score 80 points, but we’re not doing either.”
In spite of an off shooting night, the Vols rallied from 17 back to make things interesting in the second half. The deficit was quickly cut to single digits in the final frame.
The closest UT got was 48-43 after Darius Thompson hit a dipsy-doo layup to electrify the crowd of 14,831. After that, the Vols failed to hit a field goal for six minutes.
What resulted was the Wolfpack pushing their lead back up to double digits with just under three minutes left. That was enough to begin the mass exodus of Vol fans hoping to beat traffic.
“You dig yourself in a hole then you have to fight to get out, and I thought our guys did a good job responding,” Martin said. “We had some looks; we just didn't capitalize.
“When you exert that much energy to get back into the game, it's tough when you can't pull it out.”
N.C. State forward T.J. Warren—the nation’s sixth-leading scorer with 23.3 points per game—was a big difference in the Wolfpack pulling away late. He finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds, and his 6-foot-8 frame proved to be a matchup nightmare for the Vols all game long.
Having four losses this early in the season is far from ideal for the Vols, whose biggest talking point entering the season was to avoid the signature slow start. But as Maymon expressed, it’s still early.
“It’s heartbreaking, because we have high expectations for ourselves,” Maymon said. “It’s still a long season.
“Four losses, we could end the season with four losses—that’s how we look at it. We have to look at this next game on Monday.”
The Vols look to snap a two-game skid on Monday at home against Morehead State. Tipoff is at 7 p.m., and it will be aired on ESPNU.