Tennessee extended its home opener winning streak to 15 games with an impressive 83-52 win over Middle Tennessee State on Friday.
Guard JaJuan Smith lead the way as he finished as the team’s leading scorer for the third time this season. Smith had 16 points and five rebounds in the season opener.
Even more impressive was the fact that Smith did not score until less than seven minutes remained in the first half. He then rattled off 14 points to help finish the first half ahead 45-27.
The Vols opened the highly anticipated season with a starting lineup consisting of two freshmen.
Highly touted freshmen forward Duke Crews and guard Ramar Smith joined Dane Bradshaw, JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton.
Fouls were called early and often as the Vols were forced to go to the bench, as personal fouls plagued some starters.
Guard Chris Lofton managed only six points in the first half as he quickly picked up three personal fouls. Ramar Smith had no points and two turnovers as he was whistled for three fouls.
Fifty-one fouls were called during the game including 29 in the first half. The Vols shot 11 of 17 from the free line as a result of the extensive fouling.
The foul trouble gave players on the bench an opportunity.
When Lofton picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, Tennessee fans got an extensive preview of freshman Josh Tabb’s offensive abilities as he scored 13 points in 19 minutes.
“With Chris being in foul trouble, Josh Tabb came in and gave us quality minutes,” Pearl said.
Freshman forward Wayne Chism and sophomore forward Ryan Childress also took advantage of their opportunity.
Both scored in double figures off the bench, as forward Duke Crews platooned time with Childress and Chism.
Childress, who Pearl said was the most improved player on the team this fall, finished with an emphatic 10 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes of work.
Chism chipped in 10 points and seven rebounds in his 11 minutes of action.
“It was nice to see the things Wayne did considering he didn’t play all that much,” Pearl said.
Dane Bradshaw picked up where he left off, showing his versatility by adding 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
The 6-4 forward once again found a way to be effective against an MTSU team with four players taller the 6-9.
“I’ve never seen Dane play that way. I think it’s something in the crowd that brings out the best in him. He’s a true gamer,” Pearl said.
Defensively, the Vols forced the Blue Raiders into bad decisions, as they constantly pressured the defenders. Twelve of Tennessee’s 22 turnovers came from the MTSU guards, as the Vols’ full court pressure made for ill-advised passing.
“The ball pressure makes a team play sloppy and out of control, and that is exactly what we did to MTSU tonight,” Pearl said.
For a team that has so much youth, the Vols were able to stay patient on the offensive side of the ball.
Lofton only played 21 minutes, as he was relegated to a seat on the bench. Pearl contended that Lofton was not treated like an All-American after the game. Lofton did manage to bury two three-pointers but finished the game with only six points, as he hit only two shots.
Lofton being sidelined did allow the Vols to see others respond, as the team managed to keep the tempo high.
“It was great to see everyone pick up the tempo of play with Chris on the bench,” Bradshaw said. “This team is so deep, especially at the guard position.”
Tennessee’s win was a good way to open up the season, but much improvement is still needed, as the team travels to Nashville for the first rounds of the pre-season NIT (National Invitational Tournament).
“That was a good win for us to open the season. I told the team it was a good sign that not everybody played well and we won by 31 points,” Pearl said.