CINCINNATI — A game the Tennessee men’s basketball team felt would be an NCAA tournament resume builder and a statement that the new and improved Vols could and would start fast instead turned into a season-opening stumble.
Despite recovering from a terribly cold start and again cutting a Xavier lead to single digits in the second half, the Vols never led the Musketeers and lost 67-63 at the Cintas Center on Tuesday night.
Senior guard Jordan McRae hit a falling 3-point bank shot with 6.1 second to play to bring the Vols within two points, but two points were as close as the Vols ever got to snapping Xavier’s stranglehold on the scoring advantage that grew as large as 10.
It was the first time Tennessee had opened on the road since 2004. The loss snapped a 14-game winning streak in season openers for UT.
McRae led all scorers with 23 points. Xavier sophomore guard Semaj Christon, who scored just five points against the Vols in a loss last season, paced the Musketeers with 18.
Signs of trouble started early for UT when junior forward Jarnell Stokes, the key to the Vols’ offense, was sent to the bench with two early fouls. He played just five minutes in the first half and never got into a rhythm once he returned in the second. He eventually fouled out with four points.
Early, Stokes’ teammates failed to do much of anything without him. UT made one of its first 17 shot attempts and ended the half 8-of-30 from the field (26.7 percent), 1-of-9 from behind the arc (11.1 percent) and 3-of-12 from the free-throw line (25 percent). Only McRae found his stroke. His 13 first-half points on 5-of-10 shooting led all scorers at the time.
But Xavier failed to shut the door despite the Vols’ shooting woes. The Musketeers shot 41.4 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range, just well enough to take a 27-20 lead into intermission.
The Vols cut that lead to two multiple times in the second half.
The Musketeers were favored by two to three points headed into the game. Usual Musketeers starter Justin Martin did not play due to a head injury sustained in the final minutes of Xavier’s 83-59 win on Friday. Junior guard Dee Davis (concussion) also sat. Freshman guard Myles Davis (knee) — both entered the game off the bench.
UT senior point guard Antonio Barton played his first minutes for the Vols. The graduate transfer from Memphis entered shortly after the start of the game and finished with 10 points. Josh Richardson added 13 for UT.
Ben Frederickson covers UT men’s basketball. Follow him at twitter.com/Ben_Fred