If Tennessee had hopes of strolling its way into Christmas break against Western Carolina Friday night, a bad omen dashed those wishes in pregame warmups.
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” piped through Thompson-Boling Arena’s speakers about 40 minutes before tip-off.
With that heart two-sizes too small, the Grinch reared his grouchy head in the first half, but he couldn’t steal the game.
After making just three shots in the first half, Tennessee made 14-of-26 second-half field goals and rode a late 18-2 run to a 66-52 victory over the Catamounts.
“It was a rough game all around,” said sophomore guard Josh Richardson, who sparked the Vols by scoring 10 of his 12 points in the second half.
The difference, as in most UT wins this season, came at the free-throw line.
The Vols (7-3) enjoyed 42 shots from the stripe. They made 30.
Aggravation seeped off the Catamounts as 30 whistles hampered most of the lineup with foul trouble. On the other end, UT was called for 13 fouls.
“Any team would be frustrated knowing their opponent is continuing to get the foul calls and going to the line,” said Tennessee senior forward Kenny Hall, who returned to the lineup with nine points and 13 rebounds after missing Tuesday’s win over Presbyterian with a strained hamstring. “That goes without saying. Of course they were getting frustrated.”
It boiled over when UT’s game-changing 18-2 run turned a 38-37 WCU advantage with 11:54 left in the second half into a 55-40 lead for the home team with 4:06 remaining. The Catamounts were dazed.
The stretch included three layups by Richardson, two big buckets by Hall, four of Jordan McRae’s 14 points and was capped by a Skylar McBee 3-pointer from the wing.
“We loosened that thing up — making some perimeter shots, attacking off the dribble offensively and making plays,” said coach Cuonzo Martin.
The Vols’ outburst erased an otherwise anemic offensive showing.
Western Carolina (4-8) jumped out to a 14-4 lead thanks to point guard Trey Sumler, who finished with game-high 23 points. Coach Larry Hunter filled his Catamounts’ coffer with top-25 tests at Georgetown, Illinois and Wichita State this year and it showed. A two-thirds empty Thompson-Boling Arena offered no intimidation.
Then the whistles started piercing the air.
WCU’s valiant early lead vanished as the Vols began parading to the line.
Tennessee missed 18 of its 21 field-goal attempts in the opening 20 minutes, but used 16-of-20 free-throw shooting to manage a 22-18 halftime lead.
“With this being the last game before Christmas, I guess people weren’t as focused — ready to go home or whatever — but we were talking (at halftime) about still having a game to play,” Hall said.
It only got worse for WCU in the second half. Tennessee took 22 more foul shots. Fourteen went in.
Jarnell Stokes added 12 points and nine rebounds for the Vols, who dominated the glass, 45-30. Fifteen offensive boards led to a 17-2 edge in second-chance points.
Fighting through a 1-for-9 night from the field, Trae Golden made 8-of-10 free throws and finished with 10 points.
While UT’s hit-or-miss offense mostly missed, the defense again stood pat. Western Carolina shot 21-for-56 (37.5 percent) from the field and became the 10th straight opponent held under 70 by the Vols.
That’s Tennessee’s longest streak since coach Kevin O’Neill’s 1995-96 Vols held 16 straight foes under 70.
Four days off now await the Vols. Just like the Whos, they get to celebrate Christmas.
It’ll be short. They’ll be back to work at practice the 26th.
Xavier comes to Knoxville next Saturday.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn