When Savannah State pulled within 35-33 six minutes into the second half of its NIT opener with Tennessee, the Vols seemed on the verge of another mid-major meltdown. Making the similarity downright eerie was the fact Savannah State's RPI of 191 is one spot higher than Austin Peay's of 192.
The Big Orange changed the script this time, however, thanks to some clutch play from a little-used freshman. After scoring just 2 points in the previous six games combined, Josh Richardson came through with three key baskets as Tennessee reclaimed the momentum and went on to win, 65-51.
The top-seeded Vols, now 19-14, were without the services of starting power forward Jeronne Maymon, who missed the game with a bruised right knee. He is listed "day to day" by head coach Cuonzo Martin.
Tennessee will play its second-round NIT game against fourth-seeded Middle Tennessee, which moved to 26-6 Tuesday by beating Marshall 86-78. The date and time of the Tennessee-Middle Tennessee game is not yet determined.
The Vols appeared ready to romp when they shot out to a 24-7 lead 11 minutes into Tuesday night's game. They lost focus at this point, however, went nearly seven minutes without a basket and allowed Savannah State to make a 13-3 run that narrowed the gap to 27-20.
The Tigers kept clawing and eventually cut a 32-24 halftime deficit to 35-33 on two free throws by Preston Blackman with 14:31 remaining.
Jordan McRae finally stopped the bleeding with a 14-foot jumper for Tennessee, then Richardson scored on a tip-in. After a transition layup by Trae Golden and a putback by Yemi Makanjuola, Richardson hit a 10-footer from the lane and a 15-footer from the wing. Jarnell Stokes then scored on a nifty inside move to cap a 14-4 spurt that bumped the lead from 35-33 to 49-37 with 8:09 to play. Tennessee coasted home from there.
Jarnell Stokes led the Vols with 13 points and Golden added 11. Makanjuola, who started in place of Maymon, added 10 points and 8 rebounds. Richardson also scored 10 points for the Vols, posting season highs for field goals made (5) and field goals attempted (9).
Rashad Hassan posted 20 points and 14 rebounds for Savannah State, which finishes 21-12. Blackman added 14 points and 5 assists for the scrappy Tigers.
Perhaps the most encouraging development of the win was the return of Richardson after virtually disappearing the past three weeks. Playing 24 solid minutes, he provided his usually stellar defensive work along with the added bonus of some timely scoring.
After noting that the pull-up jumper is Richardson's "patented shot," Martin added: "He just played with confidence. It's a matter of relaxing, taking what the defense gives. Don't go hunting shots but if you have an opportunity to get in the lane, be aggressive and make a play."
Richardson certainly made plays Tuesday night, contributing greatly to the Vol victory. That felt great for a guy who came in shooting just 33.3 percent from the field.
"I thought I played well," Richardson said. "Coach told me to play with more confidence, and I tried to do that tonight. I took shots, and they were falling."
Questioned about Martin's reference to his "patented" pull-up jumper, Richardson smiled.
"Yeah, that's probably one of my best shots, and I feel I can take advantage of it a lot more now," he said. "It's an easy shot to shoot for me."
At 6-feet-6, Richardson typically finished his drives at the rim in high school. Now that he's facing bigger, faster college players, however, pulling up for short jumpers makes considerably more sense.
"High school was a lot different," he said. "Everybody was a lot smaller and slower, so I would usually dunk in high school. Everybody's a lot bigger now, so I pull up."