All it took was a couple of days away from each other and a visit from Saint Nick.
The Tennessee Vols beat down the Virginia Cavaliers 87-52 on Monday night in Thompson-Boling Arena, posting their most impressive performance in this young season of unmet expectations.
In Cuonzo Martin’s final chance to salvage a disappointing non-conference slate, his squad dominated a formidable ACC opponent to improve to 8-4 on the season.
“Much needed win against a talented, physical opponent,” Martin said. “But I think more than anything, it shows our guys the level we’re capable of playing at when we play together and when we play hard.”
2013 hasn’t been the greatest of years for Tennessee basketball, but it ended with a bang. The Vols' 35-point win secured their largest margin of victory in more than four years.
“Tennessee went into the season with a reputation,” Martin said. “I think these are some of the results of what our team could, and should, look like.”
Jordan McRae (21 points), Jarnell Stokes (20) and Josh Richardson (20) led the charge for the hot-shooting Vols. As a team, they went 50 percent from the field and hit 11 of 17 three-pointers, while holding Virginia to 32.7 percent shooting.
The Vols wasted no time distancing themselves from the Cavaliers. They held a double-digit lead less than eight minutes in and led by as many as 24 in the first half.
They made no bones about their game plan to pound it inside with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon in the opening minutes. That opened up room for the shooters to propel the Vols to a gaudy early lead.
“(Virginia) was a physical, defensive team that doesn’t allow you a lot of touches and doesn’t allow a lot of lane drives or post feeds—they double,” Martin said. “I thought Jarnell and Jeronne did an exceptional job against the double team and finding shooters.
“But when you make shots, that’s what you look like.”
The Vols certainly did make their shots, led by Richardson, who simply couldn’t miss. He scored 15 of the Vols’ first 27 points, fishing 8-for-9 from the field and hitting all four of his three-point attempts.
Confident shooting has been tough to grasp for the Vols at times this season, but Richardson and his teammates had plenty of it on Monday night.
“It got to a point where when I shot a three, I was just running back on defense,” Richardson said. “I felt like if I threw it up there, it was going to go in.”
Shooting from the free-throw line and beyond the three-point arc has been the Vols’ Achilles heel this season. Both came easy on Monday.
The hot-shooting Vols hit eight of their 11 shots from deep in the first half. The starting backcourt of Antonio Barton, McRae and Richardson combined for 10-for-12 shooting from downtown.
Barton’s half-court heave at the buzzer to give the Vols a 48-26 lead at halftime was the perfect microcosm of an unusually-deadly shooting performance for UT.
“It didn’t even hit the rim,” Richardson said of Barton’s shot with a smile.
It was an uncharacteristic performance from their opponent as well. Virginia entered Monday with the nation’s No. 2 defense but let up more points than it has all season long.
Tennessee, on the other hand, kept up the defensive intensity for 40 minutes.
“We have to hang our hat on defense, and we did that,” Martin said. “I think the last couple of games, both halves, we defended like we’re capable of defending and should be defending.”
Not usually the team’s defensive stopper, McRae was matched up against Virginia star guard Joe Harris and shut him down. Harris finished 2-for-9 with seven points and three turnovers.
Martin came off awfully impressed with McRae’s defense against one of the ACC’s best players.
“That was probably Jordan’s best game defensively since he’s been in the program,” Martin said. “Just one of those deals where he had to guard him, because their other wing guys were big and physical. I thought he did a great job accepting the challenge.”
Tennessee’s lopsided win was a vast contrast to its loss to Virginia on the road last season. On Monday, the Vols surpassed their total (38) from last year’s game with more than four minutes left in the first half and doubled it late in the second half.
The Vols will be back in action Saturday with a home affair against Tusculum to close out the non-conference slate.