BAYAMON, Puerto Rico — No Jeronne Maymon? No hay problema.
Tennessee isn’t ready to abandon the blocks.
Just ask UNC Asheville.
Fueled by 14 points apiece and a combined 19 rebounds by forwards Jarnell Stokes and Kenny Hall, the Vols powered past the Bulldogs on Thursday afternoon. A 75-68 win the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off wasn’t quite as close as it seemed.
Tennessee (2-0) led by as many as 17 in the second half.
Asheville (1-2) pushed late, but the Vols pushed back by making 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch.
“We wanted to set a tone of getting the ball inside and establishing the post and allowing our guards to feed off the production on the blocks,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said following the victory at Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez. “I thought we did that.”
As a result, a quick turnaround has Tennessee slated to play Oklahoma State (2-0) in the tournament’s semifinals today (TV: ESPNU, 10:30 a.m.).
Martin will hope for the same production down low against the Cowboys, who survived an overtime scare from Akron in Thursday’s first game.
Hall and Stokes combined for 14 of the Vols’ 16 points to open the second half. Asheville had no answer.
Especially at the 12:37 mark of the second half.
Backing his rear end into 6-foot-10 Asheville center D.J. Cunningham, Stokes created space, caught an entry pass, turned to his left, and punished the rim — and Cunningham’s ego — with a dramatic one-handed dunk.
Looking spry for the first time all season, even Maymon forgot about his injured knee and sprang to his feet in celebration.
“I was surprised how high I got up,” said Stokes, later confiding that he hopes the play lands on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.
More importantly than any highlight, Stokes’ dunk gave UT a 56-39 lead, its largest margin of the day.
Like the Atlantic Ocean tide slowly eating away at the Puerto Rican shoreline over the course of the afternoon, the Vols post players just wore down Asheville. Eleven offensive rebounds highlighted UT’s 37-25 rebounding margin.
“The play of their three frontline guys, particularly Hall and Stokes was a little bit too much for us,” Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach said.
The Bulldoges’ attention on Stokes and Hall opened things up nicely for the rest of the Vols. Trae Golden joined his big men with 14 points, while Josh Richardson and Jordan McRae added 12 apiece on the wings.
On the bright side, the Vols shot exactly 50 percent from the field (26-for-52). On the down side, they allowed Asheville to shoot exactly 50 percent from the field (23-for-46).
Much of that production came in the second half when the Bulldogs trimmed UT’s lead back down to single digits.
“Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves and start gambling too much, losing our principles on defense,” said Golden, who played a team-high 34 minutes. “Once we do that, that’s when teams are able to get back into games. We just have to buckle down and fix that.”
Those late lapses were an issue for the second game in a row. Last Friday, Kennesaw cut a 27-point second-half deficit to single figures.
“I wouldn’t call it a problem,” Martin said plainly. “It’s the second game of the season.”
Jeremy Atkinson led Asheville with a game-high 18 points.
Playing in the second game of their UT careers, newcomers D’Montre Edwards, Quinton Chievous and Armani Moore were quiet. Neither played more than 10 minutes and only five points came from the lot.
After sharing team-high scoring honors against Kennesaw State, senior guard Skylar McBee went without a field goal.
Hall, McRae and Richardson, all embracing new roles, more than made up for it. Richardson’s career-high 12 points prove he’s a good fit in the Vols’ starting lineup, while McRae’s 12 show he’s embraced his sixth man title.
Then there is Hall. Filling in for Maymon, he is playing as well as anyone could have hoped.
“Kenny Hall has stepped into that starting role and really taken pride in it,” Martin said.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn