Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes on Kennesaw win
College basketball dribbled back into our world Friday night.
The road to the Final Four got under way with 110 games. The one in Thompson-Boling Arena didn't end quite as marvelously as Tennessee would have liked.
Bottom line: The Vols fended off Kennesaw State 76-67. It was a win and that's better than the alternative. Ask Holly Warlick.
Coach Cuonzo Martin watched the opening act of Tennessee's 104th season take shape according to form. His team stepped to the threshold of a convincing rout against an overmatched opponent.
That's where things went off track.
Tennessee opened the second half dominating at both ends. The Vols looked up, saw a 61-34 lead on the scoreboard and, with 11 minutes to play, more or less called it a night.
"We've got to stay mentally focused the whole game,'' said junior Jordan McRae. "In a game like that it's really hard to stay engaged.''
Martin sounded sympathetic, at least for public consumption.
"You get those type of games,'' he said. "The mental slippage … the focus goes out the door.''
The outcome was never in doubt. Kennesaw State didn't have the horses.
The Owls were winless in the Atlantic Sun last year. They'll probably win a few this year, but they faced the Vols with a lineup peppered with true freshmen playing.
So, knowing all that, maybe it was difficult for Tennessee to stay engaged.
"They hit a couple of shots, get rolling and they've got nothing to lose,'' said senior Skylar McBee. "It's hard to guard teams like that.''
He's right, and there is evidence.
Just last year, Austin Peay in December and MTSU in March had nothing to lose, hit a couple of shots and rolled out of Thompson-Boling Arena
with wins over UT.
I don't know if those haunting memories danced through the Vols' minds as Kennesaw chopped the lead to 20, then 15 and finally nine.
"We definitely slacked off,'' said McRae. "We can't let them score as many points as they did and as easy as they did.''
Before they slacked off, the Vols were solid.
They were patient and aggressive in just the right measures, shooting 70.8 percent in the first half and 60.5 for the game.
Jarnell Stokes found his teammates with passes when he drew double teams down low. He finished with five baskets, five assists and five steals.
An encouraging sign — Tennessee was 7-of-12 from 3-point range. It was shortly after McRae drained a trey that D'Montre Edwards' layup made it 61-34.
The Vols, however, would go nearly eight minutes until their next field goal.
Martin attributed the slump in part to the guard-heavy lineup he was using for defensive matchups.
As for Kennesaw's 31-29 rebounding edge that included 15 offensive boards, Martin also was forgiving. He said he's been reluctant to run box-out drills in practice for fear of injury.
So the result was slippage. You can afford a little slippage against the Kennesaws of the world, but it gets risky against virtually anyone else on the schedule.
"You have to take pride in dominating teams when you have the opportunity,'' Martin said.
And that's the lesson of opening night.