Cuonzo Martin, on the Vols' loss to UTEP
The rematch wasn’t supposed to come this way, though.
Thanks to cold shooting and lackluster defense, the Vols lost to UTEP 78-70 in their first game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament at Imperial Arena on Thursday night. They will move to the losers' side of the bracket and play Xavier, who lost Thursday to No. 23 Iowa 77-74, at 1 p.m.
“Tough loss,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin. “Give UTEP credit. They played well. They competed start from finish.”
UT (3-2) entered the game with what appeared to be the most favorable opponent in the field. The Miners were the only team in the tournament that had two losses on their record. But UT’s offense sparked much too late, and defensive mastermind and UTEP coach Tim Floyd dug into his back of tricks to delay it as long as he could.
UTEP's Tim Floyd on shutting down Tennessee
“Not today,” a very vocal UTEP fan said again and again as the Vols’ shots clanked off the rim. And she was right.
UTEP led by as much as 15, then found ways to punch back when UT made things interesting toward the end by switching to a full-court press UTEP struggled to break.
Jordan McRae led the Vols with 22 points on 6-of-17 shooting. Jarnell Stokes had 13 points and 13 rebounds. The team shot 34.9 percent from the field, 15 percent from deep and 59 percent from the free-throw line. They also turned the ball over an unusually-high 15 times.
At times the Miners crowded the paint and forced UT's shooters to miss from deep. At times the Vols’ best threats from the field, McRae and fellow senior guard Antonio Barton, faced a defender who stayed on their hip, even if the ball was on the other side of the ballroom turned basketball gym.
“It was tough,” McRae said. “But I think I could have done a better job getting other guys open and things like that.”
UTEP also started cold before finding the stoke UT never stumbled upon. McKenzie Moore, who returned to action after missing UTEP's last game due to a concussion, scored a team-high 19 points. John Bohannon outperformed UT forwards Stokes and Jeronne Maymon inside and finished with 18. The Miners made 58 percent of their shots.
“They attacked the rim,” Martin said. “They made shots. I didn’t think we were very aggressive in taking away passing lanes. We didn’t do a very good job off the dribble against those guys. Across the board we didn’t play well defensively.”
Martin said after the game he might have switched to the press earlier if given a second chance.
“We spent a lot of time with it in practice,” he said. “That’s something we do. It gave us good momentum. But again, we just didn’t capitalize on some errors. We just came up short."
UT entered the game knowing who it would play Friday, win or lose. Huddled around a tiny TV monitor in a resort lobby, they watched Iowa (6-0) storm back from a 15-point deficit in the second half to beat Xavier (5-1) in overtime.
Despite its heartbreaking loss the Xavier team UT faces Friday could be stronger than the one that beat it 67-63 in Cincinnati on Nov. 12. Musketeers' forward Justin Martin, who sat out of Tennessee’s previous game against Xavier due to a concussion, started and scored 15 points against Iowa.
Seemingly the Vols will also be in a better position also. Barton came off the bench due to lingering foot and knee pain in that game. And Stokes was extremely ineffective, fouling out with four points and four rebounds.
Now the Vols and Musketeers will play again, for a reason neither team very much likes.
“I wouldn’t exactly say we want payback," Josh Richardson said. “But I know we’ve got to worry about what we’re doing. We’ve got to be ready to play tomorrow. We can’t let this loss hang on our minds and affect our play.”