Cuonzo Martin has been telling Josh Richardson to "be aggressive" all season long, but never more adamantly than he did moments before Monday's game.
"(Martin) called me back to talk to me before tip," Richardson said, "and he just tapped me and was like 'be aggressive,' and I was like 'alright.'
"He was like, 'no, really. Be aggressive.'"
The junior guard scored a game-high 19 points, helping the resurgent Volunteers (7-4) to snap a two-game skid with a morale boosting, 82-67 win over the Morehead State Eagles on Monday night in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Typically a defensive stopper, Richardson has been called upon to shoulder more of a load offensively. A relieved Martin saw it pay off Monday as the junior from Edmond, Okla. notched a season high in points.
"I don't know how many times I have to tell a guy to be aggressive," the Vols' head coach said of Richardson. "When you're playing 30 minutes a night, I just don't know what to tell you."
Scoring wasn't a problem for the Vols on Monday. They shot over 60 percent in the first half, and finished 32-for-61 (52.5 percent) from the field. Four players finished in double digits.
Tennessee took control early on and held a double-digit lead for the game's final 29 minutes. Morehead State trimmed the score to 41-30 before half, but a 13-0 run by the Vols to open the final period was the proverbial dagger.
Any Eagles run was matched soon thereafter by a potent UT offense that avoided its often-occurring slump and kept the foot on the gas pedal throughout the second half. At one point late, the Vols led by as many as 26 before the reserve group allowed the final stat line to bare a less dominant, 15-point victory.
Spreading the wealth made a huge difference for Tennessee. The Vols finished with 20 team assists, which especially sticks out after posting just five dimes as a team in Wednesday's loss to N.C. State.
But the unselfish play on offense was also apparent with 15 team turnovers, which Martin wasn't all too pleased about.
"Best effort as far as passing the ball," Martin said, "but not a very good effort in taking care of the ball."
Derek Reese was an unexpected spark for the offense. In his regular-season debut, Reese scored a career-high 12 points along with 10 rebounds and four blocks.
Riding the pine early on hasn't been easy for the sophomore, who saw regular playing time last season. But instead of moping, he took it as a life lesson and continued to improve.
"I wasn't going to complain about it," Reese said of the lack of playing time. "I just had to accept it and keep working hard to better myself in life. When I have struggles in life, too, I'll have to learn to get through it."
Known more for his outside shot than anything else, Reese answered an immediate need for the Vols, who shot just 3-for-24 from beyond the arc in the N.C. State loss. The sophomore was one of five Vols to connect from deep.
Uncharacteristically enough, Jordan McRae finished with just nine points on 3-for-7 shooting. But he added five assists—matching a career high—and three big blocks.
"Teams key on him," Martin said of his leading scorer. "Teams make it tough for him. When you're a guy who scores the ball, teams will make you work to get baskets."
Tennessee's frontcourt duo regained their step after the Vols were dominated down low in their two recent losses. Jeronne Maymon poured in 16 points and eight rebounds, while Jarnell Stokes added 13 points and nine boards.
Maymon and Stokes' typical, burly selves allowed UT to claim a dominating 49-28 advantage on the boards. Their respective presences also helped the Vols block 11 shots on the night, which is the most in the Martin era and fifth-most in Tennessee history.
The Vols will get a rare chance to forget about basketball for a short period, entering a four-day Christmas break. They'll reconvene on Dec. 27 in preparation for a Dec. 30 home showdown with Virginia.
"Shut the mind down and relax for family time," Martin said of his message to the team. "This is a tough hustle and bustle."
"I told the guys, 'once we come back, it's no letting up until the season is over.'"