With Tennessee leading No. 15 Butler 58-55 and time called with 2:12 left in Sunday’s game, everyone in Thompson-Boling Arena figured the Vols would set up a play for senior Josh Richardson, who already had scored 14 second-half points. That’s what Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall was counting on.
The last thing anyone expected was a 3-point try by 6-foot-8 Derek Reese, who sat out the entire first half and had taken just one shot, a put-back, through the game’s first 37 minutes. Tyndall was counting on that, too, which is why he called a play designed to make Richardson a decoy and make Reese a hero.
Noting that Butler defenders had begun doubling up on Richardson whenever he got the ball, Tyndall told Reese to fake a handoff to his teammate, then look to shoot.
As Reese recalled: “He (Tyndall) said, ‘They’re not going to expect it, so fake it (handoff), then just knock it in.’ I said, ‘All right. I gotcha.’”
Tyndall believes a positive vibe from the head coach can go a long way in helping a shot find the mark.
“I’ve done this a long time, and I don’t claim to know a whole bunch,” the coach said, “but when you tell a kid he’s going to make a shot, a lot of times (he does). They don’t want to believe you when you tell ‘em they don’t guard but they really want to believe you when you tell ‘em they’re going to make a shot.”
If Reese was an unlikely player to take that shot, the basket itself was even more unlikely. Launched from just left of the key, it banked off the glass and through the netting, widening the gap to 61-55 and igniting a 9-0 finishing kick that would turn the 58-55 lead into a 67-55 Volunteer victory.
Shooting just 27.3 percent from beyond the arc entering Sunday’s play, Reese said he was pleased but not surprised that Tyndall chose him to take the clutch 3-point shot.
“It just tells me he’s got confidence in me,” the player said. “He believes I’m a good shooter, and I believe I’m a good shooter.”
Jokingly asked if he called the bank shot, Reese laughed and replied: “I didn’t call it but, as soon as it went in, I said, ‘The bank is open on Sunday.’”
For a guy who never left the bench in the first half to hit the biggest basket of the game in the second half might be viewed as vindication by some. Not Reese. He wasn’t insulted by his lack of playing time in the first half.
“I was still cheering on my team,” he said. “I was just ready. Whenever my name was called I was just going out there and play my best. When he (Tyndall) told me right before the second half started to be ready, that I was going to be the first Big (subbed in), I got my mind ready to go.”
Reese’s banked 3-pointer appeared to devastate the Bulldogs, who would not score again. The win was the Vols’ first against a ranked team under Tyndall. They were 0-2 previously, losing to No. 15 Virginia Commonwealth 85-69 and to No. 11 Kansas 82-67 – both games being played on neutral floors. This time Tennessee had the home crowd and the poise to make the big plays down the stretch.
“That just tells us that we still have a lot more potential,” Reese said. “We’re still making mistakes – like giving up too many offensive rebounds the first half – but just stopping that makes the game easier for us. We’ve got a lot of potential.”
That potential was pretty well hidden in the first half. Tennessee shot just 39.1 percent from the field (9 of 23), 16.7 percent from the 3-point line (1 of 6) and 54.5 percent from the foul line (6 of 11) en route to a 34-25 intermission deficit. Worse, the Vols gave up 10 offensive rebounds and lost the backboard battle 24-12.
“Hot damn! Him again!” he said when asked his thoughts on the Dunham bomb. “When teams hit 3s like that it kind of takes the life out of you but you’ve got to stay with it if you want to win.”
Whereas Dunham’s second-half 3 got Punter angry it got Richardson going. After producing just two first-half points, he suddenly went off – scoring the game’s next eight points as the Vols closed to 37-33.
“They were giving me angles the first half but I wasn’t taking them,” Richardson said. “The second half I kind of picked myself up and got to going.”
Apparently so. He wound up hitting 8 of 10 shots in the second half and scoring 18 of his game-high 20 points after intermission. Taking its cue from the senior leader, Tennessee outscored Butler 42-21 in the second half. This did not surprise Tyndall, who understands full well what his senior co-captain means to this team.
“Josh is a great leader,” the coach said. “When he talks and he plays with a chip on his shoulder the rest of our guys follow suit.”Punter produced 12 of his 18 total points after the break for the Vols, now 4-3. As a team, Tennessee hit 59.3 percent (16 of 27) after intermission while limiting Butler to 28.6 percent (4 of 14). Dunham scored 16 points to pace the Bulldogs, now 8-2.
The announced crowd was 14,058 but the actual attendance was more like 10,000. Those who showed up, however, were an animated and vocal bunch, providing considerable impetus during the Vols’ second-half surge.
“Our team really competed, played exceptionally hard,” Tyndall said. “We held a very efficient team to 33 percent (shooting) in large part due to our crowd. I thought our crowd was fantastic. They gave us some energy at key times in that game and really helped us, particularly on the defensive end.
“We just hope that every crowd from here on is the same. It certainly makes a difference, so they’re to be commended.”