Glancing over at his Tennessee players before a practice on Monday, Cuonzo Martin tapped into some philosophy.
“That brain is a powerful tool,” the Vols coach said.
Made shots beget confidence, he explained.
“When you’re making shots and winning games, it’s a different atmosphere,” Martin said.
A day after the philosophy lesson, Tennessee made plenty of shots. Twenty-eight on 14 assists, to be exact, in a never-in-doubt 78-62 rout against Presbyterian (2-9).
There are more lessons, though, to be learned. Thanks to what Martin called “mental slippage,” after building a 43-13 halftime lead, the Vols (6-3) were outscored 49-35 in the second half by a Presbyterian team roving through its first year as a fully certified Division I program.
No opponent has scored that many points in a half against the Vols since Oakland dropped 50 in the second half of the sixth game of Martin’s tenure as head coach last November.
“(We) saw the score and a lot of guys, including myself, let up off the gas,” said UT point guard Trae Golden, who led the Vols in assists for the eighth time in nine contests with a game-high eight and added 16 points. “We can’t do that. We have to make sure we play the entire 40 minutes.”
On the flipside, a UT offense looking for momentum continued to gain steam. The Vols made 28 of 60 shots against Presbyterian, including nine of 22 3-point attempts.
The Vols shot 8-for-45 (17.8 percent) from 3-point distance in the three games leading up to Tuesday. Two were losses.
“It’s great for the guys to be able to make shots, make free throws, and gain a level of confidence,” said Martin, whose Vols outrebounded Presbyterian 42-22.
Jarnell Stokes quietly led five double-figure scorers with 18 points, going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.
For Tennessee players like Skylar McBee and D’Montre Edwards, Tuesday was a welcomed reprieve.
Facing Presbyterian’s zone defense, McBee, who had missed 19 of his last 26 3-point attempts, made four of 10 to finish with 12 points.
Edwards, who was shooting 28.0 percent from the field, made a pair of threes and scored a career-high 11 points.
“It takes a lot of stress off us,” Edwards said. “We can take a deep breath. The basket starts to get bigger.”
Even with that, those 49 points allowed in the second half will loom large at today’s practice.
Martin didn’t hide his disdain.
With just under 13 minutes left, he wheeled around and called a 30-second timeout after back-to-back defensive breakdowns. The lead still sat at 26, 56-30.
After a 3-pointer by Presbyterian’s Jordan Downing, his second straight from the far corner, cut Tennessee’s lead to 18 with 6:25 left, Martin shook his head. The Vols answered that time, though. Edwards and McBee canned two threes.
The Blue Hose shot 64.3 percent (18-for-28) in the half.
“We had a lot of mental lapses out there that we can’t have happen,” Golden said. “We have a lot of veteran guys and made a lot of mistakes.”
Jordan McRae made his first start since a loss at Memphis early last January. He scored 12 points to go with eight rebounds in place of Kenny Hall (strained hamstring).
The Vols return to Thompson-Boling Arena on Friday for a matchup with Western Carolina (4-7).
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn