Like the Tide, the Aggies are long and athletic. Like the Tide, the Aggies play a tough zone defense that forced Tennessee to fire from long range. Like the Tide, the Aggies won the backboards. Like the Tide, the Aggies allowed so few Tennessee baskets that they rarely had to contend with the Vols’ full-court press. And, like the Tide, the Aggies slipped out of Knoxville with a key SEC road win. The 67-61 final score wasn’t as ugly as the 56-38 loss to Bama but the story line was eerily similar.
“They remind me of Alabama,” Tyndall conceded. “They caused us trouble when we were on the offensive end. We shoot 52 balls, and 29 of them are from 3. If you go back to the Alabama game, pretty much what we did then was settle for too many jump shots. Our will and our mentality to drive the ball wasn’t good enough, like it has been in most cases. That wasn’t the case tonight.”
Worse, the unbridled energy Tennessee exhibited in earlier outings wasn’t present this time. With eight wins in their previous nine games, the Vols may have been a little full of themselves.
“I don’t like using the word ‘complacency’ but we came out at the beginning of the game exactly like that,” Tyndall said. “We’ll have to learn from the film and, hopefully, get our mentality back to where we’re on edge every single game. With our margin of error, our lack of depth and some of the deficiencies we have, if we aren’t on razor’s edge and playing with attention to detail every night we can’t win, no matter who we play.”
Struggling to score inside against the long-armed Aggies, the Vols made just 38.5 percent of their shots, marginally better than the 31.1 mark they posted against Alabama. The Vols lost the backboards to A&M 34-27, nearly matching the numbers from the Bama game (34-29). Even Tennessee’s normally stout defense came up short against the Aggies, allowing the visitors to dish out 17 assists and sink 48.1 percent of their field-goal attempts.
“They did a lot of different things we hadn’t seen,” Vol senior Josh Richardson said, “but I just don’t think we did a good job of guarding.”
Meanwhile, on the rare occasions when the Vols managed to penetrate A&M’s 2-3 zone they routinely failed to finish their inside shots. That seemed to frustrate them.
“Once we had those mishaps, I don’t think we stayed as aggressive as we needed to be, driving the ball in there,” Tyndall said.
Despite an animated crowd of 16,547, the Vols sleepwalked through game’s opening minutes.
“For whatever reason, the first six or eight minutes of the game we didn’t have the energy level I would’ve expected us to have, and they (Aggies) had a great energy level,” Tyndall said.
Vol sophomore Robert Hubbs agreed, noting: “We weren’t attacking the zone or the man defense. We settled for jump shots. We just played laid-back, not playing aggressive, not rebounding the ball and not knowing our task.”
Exploiting Tennessee’s lethargy, A&M bolted to a 19-11 lead midway through the first half. Back to back 3-pointers by Kevin Punter closed the gap to 19-17, and Tennessee eventually pulled even at 21 on a 15-footer by Richardson. Still, A&M took a 25-23 lead to intermission.
The Vols came out sluggish to start the second half, as well, allowing the Aggies to make a 20-5 run that ballooned the lead to 45-28.
“We missed three little chippies right there around the rim, and you could see our guys kind of drop their heads,” Tyndall said. “Then we didn’t get back in transition, they (Aggies) had back-to-back transition layups and I called timeout. I tell our team that you can’t let your offense dictate your defense, and I thought we did that the first five or six minutes of the second half.”
Following the timeout Punter and Derek Reese sandwiched 3-pointers around a 16-footer by Richardson in an 8-0 Tennessee spurt that whittled the deficit to 45-36. A&M scored the next six points, however, to pull ahead 51-36 with 8:17 remaining.
Hubbs and Richardson nailed back-to-back 3-pointers as Tennessee pulled within five points (60-55) with 1:53 remaining. Punter missed a putback that could’ve trimmed the gap to 60-57 with 1:13 left and the officials may have missed a goal-tend on the play. Replays suggested an Aggie player swatted the ball while it was still hovering above the rim.
“I was real frustrated that I missed that little chippie but it happens,” Punter said, adding that he did not see the possible goal-tend well enough to comment on it.
Regardless, A&M sank five of six foul shots down the stretch to keep the Vols from getting any closer.
A telling stat was points in the paint: The lanky Aggies scored 30. The vertically challenged Vols managed only 10.
Jalen Jones, a 6-foot-7, 223-pound junior, led A&M with 18 points and 9 rebounds. Danuel House added 15 points and 6 assists. Alex Caruso chipped in 13 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists for the Aggies, who stand 13-5 overall and 4-2 in SEC play after winning their fourth game in a row.
Punter hit 5 of 7 shots from 3-point range and scored 17 points to lead Tennessee, now 12-6 overall and 4-2 in league play. Richardson added 12 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Hubbs chipped in 12 points and 4 rebounds. Armani Moore added 8 points and 3 blocks. Reese scored just 5 points but led the Vols in rebounds (6), assists (4) and steals (2).
As disappointing as the home-floor loss was, Tyndall didn’t seem terribly surprised. His team has a lot of shortcomings. Like Alabama, Texas A&M managed to exploit them.
“The deeper you get into league play,” the coach said, "the more your warts are exposed."