What most expected to be a ho-hum, warm-up game for the Tennessee men’s basketball team to get back on track turned into a battle Wednesday night.
The Vols won 68-62 over UT Martin before an anxious crowd of 17,481 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“Sometimes, you have these kind of games,’’ said UT junior Scotty Hopson, who scored a team-high 17 points. “You just have to grind them out.’’
The Vols (9-3) entered the game as a 29-point favorite, but needed to hit nine of 10 free throws over the final 5:18.
The Skyhawks (4-10) were coming off a 100-40 loss to No. 2 Ohio State on Monday night, yet still managed to out-rebound UT 35-30 and lead much of Wednesday’s game.
The score was tied 58-58 before Tobias Harris hit a shot with 2:48 left that gave Tennessee the lead for good.
Harris, playing with a cold and a short night’s rest, scored 13 points and pulled down a team-high 10 rebounds for his second career double-double.
The freshman missed the first start of his UT career after missing the two days of game preparation. Harris’ return flight from New York was delayed after he traveled home over the holiday break, and he didn’t return to Knoxville until 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The Vols’ struggles had little to do with Steven Pearl making his first career start in Harris’ place and more to do with the Skyhawks’ quickness.
“We could draw some comparisons from this game to the game against Indianapolis, I hate to bring that up,’’ said UT coach Bruce Pearl, whose Vols suffered an embarrassing 79-64 exhibition loss to the Division II school on Nov. 8. “(UT Martin) was so small, and undersized, that when we weren’t able to take over at the beginning of the game, establish ourselves on the inside, all the sudden they spread the floor, run the shot clock down, and take some shots.’’
The Skyhawks were making their shots early, hitting at a .517 clip in the first half including 6-of-13 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.
UT Martin closed the first half on a 10-2 run to take a 36-32 lead going into halftime.
That led to Bruce Pearl making schematic and personnel adjustments at halftime for the Skyhawks’ 3-2 zone — a defense the Vols hadn’t seen this season.
UT starting center Brian Williams didn’t play in the second half, as Pearl turned the post over to sophomore Kenny Hall and senior John Fields.
The Vols reclaimed the lead for the first time since the 3:50 mark of the first half when Jeronne Maymon hit a put-back basket with 11:20 left for a 48-47 lead.
UT Martin was back in front after Reuben Clayton (21 points) hit back-to-back 3-pointers, the second giving the Skyhawks a 55-53 lead at the 5:22 mark.
Vols freshman point guard Trae Golden tied it up at 55-55 with a pair of free throws with 5:18 remaining.
It remained a one-possession game until a Harris basket with 1:06 left made it 62-58.
“I was a little flat coming out, and I had to get my rhythm back,’’ said Harris, who after shooting 1-for-5 in the first half scored 11 points down the stretch. “I didn’t expect to start, that’s the rule when you miss the day before the game. I just knew I had to pick it up in the second half.’’
Hopson, who carried the Vols through a sluggish first half with 12 points, said UT’s experience in close games of late paid dividends.
“It was just knowing we could execute late in the game,’’ said Hopson, who was 5-of-12 shooting from the floor, 3-of-5 beyond the arc and 4-for-4 at the foul line. “I think Melvin (Goins) did a great job keeping us poised at the end.’’
Bruce Pearl said guard Skylar McBee was available to play, but after missing the two days of game preparation he was still running a low-grade fever. Josh Bone played in his place.
Bone, appearing for the first time since injuring his wrist in the Nov. 3 exhibition opener, missed the only shot he took in his 10 minutes and had one assist, one turnover and a rebound.
Bruce Pearl said Maymon would have started at the four in place of Harris, but he was also a day late returning from the holiday break on account of a flight delay, so he gave his son, Steven, the start.
Steven Pearl played only 12 minutes, but he saw action on the wing, at power forward and at center.
“Steven is a very versatile player,’’ Harris said. “At times he played everywhere, and that makes him a great complimentary player for our team.’’
Tennessee returns to action at 2 p.m. Friday at Thompson-Boling Arena against the College of Charleston (8-4).