It’s an old cliche that’s been used many times: “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.’’
Cuonzo Martin implied as much following Thursday night’s game, opening his first post-game press conference as Tennessee’s men’s basketball coach by saying: “It wasn’t pretty early but the guys managed to get it done.’’
The Vols missed their first six shots and four free throws before finding their groove in a 73-52 victory over Division II Carson-Newman in the Vols’ exhibition opener.
An announced crowd of 15,344 turned out at Thompson-Boling Arena to see Martin make his UT debut. He was hired on March 27 to replace Bruce Pearl, who was fired in the wake of an NCAA investigation.
Martin has preached high-energy defense from the time he was brought in while allowing his players to find their shots within his motion half-court offense.
UT, however, didn’t score until its sixth possession, when fifth-year senior Cameron Tatum drained a 3-pointer at the 16:33 mark to pulled the Vols within 6-3.
Some of the UT players later said it might have been a case of the nerves, but Martin had a more technical explanation.
“The thing that caught our guys off guard a bit was the zone (defense),’’ Martin said, referring to the hybrid 2-3 look the Eagles played. “To see a zone the whole game was an adjustment in itself. I think if it had been man (defense), things would have been a little different.’’
Sophomore Jordan McRae led the Vols with 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting, sophomore point guard Trae Golden had 14 points and five assists and junior power forward Jeronne Maymon recorded a double-double with 10 points and 15 rebounds.
Carson-Newman forward Antoine Davis led the Eagles with 13 points while Corbin Jackson pulled down a team-high nine rebounds.
The Vols took their first lead with 8:06 left in the half when McRae scored his 12th consecutive point on the game’s first dunk to make it 22-20.
UT closed the first half on an 11-0 run to take a 39-30 lead at halftime.
One of the issues Martin talked about in the preseason, interior scoring, stuck out in the halftime box score. Through the first 20 minutes, the Vols were 7-of-18 shooting from beyond the 3-point line and just 5-of-13 from two-point range. UT finished with only 18 points in the paint despite Carson-Newman not starting a player taller than 6-foot-5.
UT was still struggling in its half-court set midway through the second half, going more than eight minutes without a field goal. Tatum scored in transition at the 16:15 mark off a Renaldo Woolridge steal, and the next field goal didn’t come until there was 8:05 left when starting center Kenny Hall scored his first basket of the night on a put-back.
The good news for the Vols was the Eagles were struggling as well, making only two field goals over the final 17:50 and finishing 4-of-23 shooting in the second half.
“Several times tonight, we had two sophomores and three freshmen on the floor,’’ said Eagles coach Chuck Benson. “One of our most productive lineups was three freshmen and two sophomores.
“This was nothing but a positive for us, and we’ll build on it.’’
Martin made it clear his team has plenty of room for improvement, too.
“I’d grade our guys a C-plus on the defensive side of the ball,’’ he said. “We didn’t jump to the ball as well as we’d like, five guys didn’t box out consistently.’’
UT freshman Quinton Chievous was the only scholarship player not to see action.
“We got in a rotation, and all the sudden it’s five minutes, 10 minutes 15 minutes; he couldn’t get in the flow,’’ Martin said. “I didn’t think it would be right to put him out there like that.’’
Martin said he wasn’t sure if Chievous — who dressed out — would play in the second and final exhibition at 7 p.m. on Monday against Lincoln Memorial University in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32