In his first career start, Tennessee freshman center Yemi Makanjuola scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds to help lead the No. 1 seed Volunteers to a 65-51 victory over the eighth-seeded Savannah State Tigers in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) on Tuesday night.
“I thought Yemi played really well accepting that starting role,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He defended, played extremely hard, rebounded the ball. He gathered himself when he got an offensive rebound and made plays. He made his free throws, 6-of-7. That was just as impressive.”
Along with the help of freshmen forward Jarnell Stokes’ team-high 13 points, UT got off to a strong start and never lost its lead. Martin said he was happy with the outcome, even though it wasn’t the prettiest win.
“For me, I just like W’s,” the first-year Vols coach said. “I’d rather gather and regroup after an ugly win I guess because it’s a win. You keep moving. It’s better watching film that way and guys are learning. I thought we did a good job. They make you play a certain way. Their 4s and 5s are really 6-(foot)-7, 6-(foot)-8 perimeter guys that go off the dribble and I thought we did a good job of guarding from that standpoint. I thought we did a good job handling their press.”
Despite a small crowd of 6,289 in attendance, Thompson-Boling Arena provided a definite home-court advantage.
“I thought the crowd energy was great tonight,” Martin said. “It wasn’t as huge of a size but it was a tremendous effort. They were enthusiastic about cheering. They were ready to cheer when we hit a lull. I thought they were very active and it was fun to see. I thought they were a really good crowd in my opinion. That part was great.”
UT jumped out to a quick 10-0 advantage, and led by as much as 17 points in the first half. The Tigers fought back to cut the Vols’ lead to eight, at 32-24 at halftime.
“We hit a spell in that first half,” Martin said. “We got a big lead and we didn’t move the ball as well as we needed to. I think we were hunting shots. I thought we did a good job in the second half of settling down and making plays.”
Savannah State opened the second half on a 9-3 run to cut UT’s lead to two at 35-33. It was the closest the Tigers would get.
The Vols shot 42 percent from the field (21-of-50), while allowing its second-fewest points of the season.
Maymon was missing from the line-up due to a bruised right knee that Martin said is “a day-to-day kind of thing.” Maymon, a second team All-SEC selection, is UT’s second leading scorer (12.6) and top rebounder (8.1) on the year.
“You’re talking about really our team leader,” Martin said. “You can’t lose a guy of that magnitude and think you’re going to click on all cylinders out of the gate. It’s a major adjustment. Other guys have to step up.”
One player who did step up was freshman guard Josh Richardson, who started nine games this season and came off the bench to score 10 points, the second-highest total of his career.
“That pull-up, that’s the shot he can make. That’s probably his patented shot, going left and hitting that pull-up,” Martin said. “He just played with confidence. My thing with him is just relax and take what the defense gives you.”
The Vols advance to the second round of the 32-team NIT, and will host Middle Tennessee on either Thursday or Sunday.
“We’re in this to win,” junior guard Skylar McBee said. “No matter what tournament it is, no matter what game it is, we’re coming to battle every night. We’re hoping to make it to New York and win this thing.