'Curmudgeon' helps Vols survive, 61-58

InsideTennessee is your best bet for the finest coverage of Vol hoops. Check out this colorful recap of Friday night's game with Tennessee Tech:

The way he was grumbling about his youthful teammates following Friday night’s 61-58 defeat of Tennessee Tech, Tennessee's Josh Richardson sounded more like a senior citizen than a senior basketball player. In fact, he was one “These kids today!” from qualifying for full-blown curmudgeon status.

“We’ve got so many 18 year olds and 19 year olds that don’t know anything about this,” the 21-year-old Richardson said, reflecting grumpily on the Vols’ sluggish first-half play against the Golden Eagles.

His frustration stemmed from the fact his youthful teammates seemed more focused on the upcoming holidays than the task of winning a basketball game.

“It’s Christmas break, and a lot of people don’t know about Tennessee Tech and (low-profile) teams like that,” Richardson said. “They’re just as good as any other school.”

Actually, the Golden Eagles were better than Tennessee for most of Friday night. The Vols jumped on top 4-0, then went to sleep. The lead seesawed back and forth until Tech scored the last nine points of the half, turning a 23-26 deficit into a 32-26 lead.

“Tennessee Tech came out and hit us in the mouth,” Richardson said.

Being down at the break was nothing new for the Vols. They’ve trailed at halftime in seven of their first nine games with just one lead (25-17 versus Kansas State) and one tie (30-30 versus Texas Southern). So why is Tennessee such a poor first-half team?

“I don’t know; I’m still trying to figure it out,” Richardson said. “Get back to me next game. Next time it happens maybe I’ll have an answer for you.”

Describing Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall as “ticked” at halftime, Richardson understood the frustration. The Vols cannot continue to play poor first halves and hope to continue winning.

“It’s critical,” Richardson said. “Getting into league play, we’re going to face great teams every night, so you can’t have slow starts like that.”

Tyndall shouldered the blame for the sluggish start.

“It just seemed like we were going through the motions a little bit,” the coach said. “My teams don’t usually do that. We don’t always play well but we usually play pretty hard. The first half we didn’t have that. I take the blame there.

“Anytime you have a leader like we do in Josh, who will challenge guys, that certainly helps. Josh was trying to do that before the game. I heard him. So that (lack of fire in the first half) is on me. I’ve got to do a better job. I’ll probably be up till 4 in the morning thinking about it. Maybe we should’ve practiced (Thursday) – even if it was just for 40 minutes – so these young guys don’t have any type of complacency or any inclination that this is going to be easy.”

Told of the coach’s comments, Richardson conceded that he noted some lethargy in the pre-game locker room and tried to fix it.

“We’ve got to do a better job of coming out with a little energy,” he said. “I was trying to get the guys going but it took a while.”

It took 32 minutes to be precise. With Tech leading 46-44, Richardson drained a 16-footer to tie the score, then hit four of six foul shots on the next three Vol possessions, single-handedly outscoring Tech 6-0 to give Tennessee a 50-46 lead with 6:04 remaining.

Tech closed to 52-51 but back-to-back three-point plays by Armani Moore and Devon Baulkman enabled Tennessee to build its biggest lead at 58-51 with 54.7 seconds left. The Golden Eagles were not ready to be grounded, however. An inside basket by 6-foot-10 Charles Jackson and two free throws by Torrance Rowe, sandwiched around two Richardson foul shots, whittled the deficit to 60-55 with 16 seconds remaining.

Baulkman made the second of two foul shots with 9.8 seconds left, then Tech’s Aleksa Jugovic drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Rowe scored 14 points to lead the Golden Eagles, now 6-5. He hit 4 of 4 shots (all from 3-point range) in the first half to fuel Tech’s six-point intermission lead but went 0 for 5 from the field in the second half as Tennessee got more active in its 1-3-1 defense.

“I just hammered it in everybody’s head: ‘Twelve (Rowe) does not get a look at the goal,’” Richardson recalled. “I think the guys did a great job of cutting the water off.”

Richardson finished with 19 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and just 2 turnovers in 38 minutes, 33 of them at the point. Baulkman came off the bench to contribute 10 points, 3 rebounds, a block and 2 steals in 18 minutes. Willie Carmichael and Kevin Punter chipped in 8 points each.

Injury-plagued graduate transfer Ian Chiles started the second half at the point, contributing 2 points and a rebound in 5 minutes for the Vols, now 5-4.

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