Rams ruin Vol opener, 85-69

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The charge Josh Richardson led ended with the charge he committed in Tennessee’s opener against Virginia Commonwealth Friday in the Veterans Classic at Annapolis, Maryland.

Richardson rallied the Vols from a 55-35 second-half deficit only to foul out with 3:50 left. Colliding with a VCU player on a driving basket that would have trimmed the gap to 77-66, he was whistled for a charge, negating the bucket and sending the Vol senior to the bench with his fifth foul.

With its best offensive player, best defensive player and best ball-handler sidelined, Tennessee never seriously challenged thereafter as the Rams prevailed 85-69.

Richardson and freshman Detrick Mostella scored 17 points each to pace the Vols in Donnie Tyndall’s debut as their head coach.

“Detrick was fantastic at the offensive end,” Tyndall said on the post-game show. “I love Detrick, and he’s going to be a great player. But on nights when you don’t make shots, what else are you doing to help our team win? Tonight he plays 22 minutes and doesn’t rebound the ball, doesn’t have an assist. That’s not being critical. That’s just part of him growing because there are going to be nights when he doesn’t have 17 points. As he continues to get better with that he’s going to be really good.”

Melvin Johnson scored 23 points and Treveon Graham 15 for Shaka Smart’s Rams, ranked No. 15 entering the 2014-15 season.

“I thought we really competed and played hard for 40 minutes,” Tyndall said. “Unfortunately, we only played well for 20 minutes. The first half we just turned it over too much. We worked five straight days against six players practicing the press, and yet we get out there tonight and play the first half a little hesitant. The second half we were much more loose and aggressive and played with confidence.”

Both teams struggled with turnovers due to a shortage of point guards. Tennessee relies on shooting guards Richardson and Kevin Punter to run the point. Virginia Commonwealth was without first-team point guard Briante Weber, who missed the game due to a suspension, then lost backup Dequon Lewis to a head injury midway through the first half.

With no point guards and a ton of fouls – 34 called on Tennessee, 28 on VCU – the game was sloppy from opening tip to final horn. The Vols committed 19 turnovers, the Rams 18. Tennessee was especially careless in the first half, committing 14 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Tennessee’s only lead was 2-0. The game was tied at 14-14, then VCU made a 12-1 spurt that produced a 26-15 lead. Tennessee pulled within 28-23 only to watch the Rams close the half with a 20-7 rally that produced a 48-30 halftime lead. Johnson accounted for 20 of VCU’s first-half points, hitting 8 of 10 shots, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range.

Tennessee nearly shut out Johnson in the second half. His only basket of the final 20 minutes was a 3-pointer that bumped the lead to 80-66 with 1:50 left.

Though disappointed by the loss, Tyndall knew there would be growing pains.

“I was proud of the fact that our kids kept competing,” the coach said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys. At times we had Detrick Mostella out there, with Jabari McGhee and Willie Carmichael. That’s three freshmen, and (JUCO transfer) Kevin Punter, a guy that before tonight had never played in a Div. 1 game. We’re going to get better and continue to progress as the season goes along.”

The Vols may not face a better full-court press all year than the one they saw Friday night. VCU really does a great job pressuring and double-teaming the ball.

“We’re a work in progress because Josh Richardson’s never played that (point) position,” Tyndall said. “He had seven turnovers tonight. I thought he played well other than the turnovers, but playing against this type of pressure in his first game as a full-time point guard is not easy to do.”

Both teams played well defensively. Tennessee limited VCU to 40.3 percent shooting (25 of 62) and the Rams limited the Vols to 42.1 percent (24 of 57). Both teams were miserable from the foul line – Tennessee shooting 51.5 percent (17 of 33) and VCU 60 percent (24 of 40). The Rams won the boards 48-42, thanks to a whopping 23 offensive rebounds.

Tennessee plays its home opener Thursday night, hosting Texas Southern for a 7 o’clock tipoff.

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