Vols Find Stride; Start Season Strong Against UNC Asheville
The Vols spent the first half looking a bit out of sorts. They utilized their length and athletes to fight out to a lead on the Bulldogs, but they just never looked quite in sync. Tennessee would make a nice defensive play, a block from Yves Pons for example, to start a break, only to throw the ball away on the other end. Tennessee fans had grown accustomed to watching the Vols play as a well-oiled machine with a core of players that had been together for so many games. The first half showed Vol fans that this group is learning how to play together, as they currently are trying to help together as a unit. Even the players that have been together for years, like Bowden and Turner, struggled in the first half, as the Vols’ pair of All-SEC guards turned the ball over a combined seven times in the first half. Josiah James also had some turnovers off the bench, earning some of Rick Barnes’ ire before the half.
Still, the Vols led by as many as fourteen in the first half, though their lead was only eight at the break. It felt as if Tennessee had an opportunity to step on UNC Asheville’s throat as they opened a double digit lead, but they just couldn’t stomp down. While the pressure defense from the Bulldogs did bother the Vols, as did Tennessee trying to run through the offensive end too quickly, the Vols maintained their advantage with a smothering defense of their own. Tennessee pressured the ball and made life difficult for the Bulldogs, even Lavar Batts Jr. Though Batts had 9 points at the half, the Bulldogs were shooting just 31% from the floor, and the Vols were dominant on the glass. Bowden and Turner were definitely the recipients of some intense coach by Barnes at the break, but they still chipped in a combined 15 points. The Vols were led in the first half by Yves Pons, who totaled 9 points to go with three blocks. Pons had a strong half, hitting a three pointer and beginning to assert himself as a presence in the low post.
Coming out of the half, Pons continued his strong showing by opening the scoring with a strong dunk, followed by a finish from Jordan Bowden off a defensive stop by John Fulkerson. The Vols looked sharper and opened on an 8-0 run in the first four minutes of the second half. While Tennessee was inconsistent at times on offense, even during the run, the defense never let up. The Vols were playing Scrappy, tight, aggressive defense from the opening tip. Devon Baker was the leading returning scorer for the Bulldogs, and his first point didn’t come until a free throw in the second half. He struggled with the pressure from the rotating Tennessee guards. Turner, Bowden, and James frustrated Baker with three excellent defenders, all with different skill sets. The combination of outstanding defense and a few quick flurries of offense from Tennessee resulted in a 13-1 run over the first six minutes of the second. It was a half of runs for the Vols, as they stretched their lead as high as 25 on the back of excellent defense and streaky shooting, though they gave up a 12 point run to the Bulldogs late in the game to allow them to cut the lead.
The story of the night was the play of Yves Pons. Apart from setting a new career high in points with 15, Pons had 3 blocks and 7 rebounds as well. The impressive statistics don’t tell the entire story for Pons though. The Junior Frenchman was his same, aggressive, stifling self on the defensive end. Pons showed his ability to guard on the ball positions one through five, provide help, and force opponents to alter their shots around the rim. Pons also sparked the Tennessee offense with his rebounds, blocks, and outlet passes. Beyond that, Pons ran the floor extremely well, all night. He pushed the pace and consistently made things difficult on both ends of the floor for the Bulldogs. Perhaps the most exciting thing for Tennessee coming out of this game was how Pons put together his career night. He showed a three-point shot, as well as showing a low post game and moves on the block. Pons put the muscle he added to his frame in the off season to outstanding use. The Vols were desperate for a post presence after all their departures, and it appeared Pons would get that shot based on opportunity alone. Against the Bulldogs, Pons showed that he is up to the role of being the primary post weapon for the Vols, and that he can thrive in that role.
Another theme for the Vols against UNC Asheville was how the Tennessee freshmen played. Josiah James did not put up many points in the game, but he did have 2 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists. James also answered the bell after a challenge from Barnes, and played solid minutes and good defense. Olivier Nkamhoua made an impact for Tennessee off the bench as well. Nkamhoua is a player that shows flashes on the floor, and looks like he could be ready to contribute immediately. At 6’8” the Vols need Nkamhoua’s size, and he added in 7 points and 7 rebounds in his debut. Devonte Gaines was given minutes as well against UNC Asheville, and he showed that there may be a role for him with these Vols as scoring off the bench. Gaines chipped 9 points in and showed he could be a valuable asset in his debut.
Though Lamonte Turner led Tennessee with 17 points and 6 assists, he and Bowden, who finished with 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists, turned the ball over too many times against the Bulldogs. Those turnovers weren’t always their fault, but they are still growing with a young team that is learning to play together. As good as Turner and Bowden are, and as stellar as their defense was on opening night, this team looked to run most efficiently on offense when they found looks for Pons and John Fulkerson, who finished a rebound shy of a double-double with 10 points and 9 boards. There is plenty for Rick Barnes to press and coach up before his Vols take the floor again against Murray State, but there were bright spots too. The 15 point victory gets the Vols off to a 1-0 start while adding to the nation’s longest home winning streak. That Barnes knows it could have been 25 or 30 points just means he has plenty of film to use as he develops his young team. The early season games are going to be important for Tennessee as this squad looks to build chemistry together. The minutes spent playing alongside one another against UNC Asheville are likely to pay dividends down the road in conference play.
Senior Recruiting Analyst
Brandon Martin is from the mountains of southeast Tennessee, a proud alumnus of ETSU, and has ended up living in Nashville after stints in Memphis and the Tri-Cities.
Football season takes him all over the Southeast, covering games in the Nashville-Middle Tennessee region, East Tennessee, Memphis-West Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia. He covers all things UT with a focus on Recruiting and Tennessee Basketball. If you see him at a game, please, come say hello.