Tennessee basketball fans don't know yet how good the Vols can be on their best day but they surely have an idea how bad the Vols can be on their worst day.
Underachieving in all three phases of play — offense, defense and rebounding — the Big Orange suffered a humbling 62-45 loss to Oklahoma State in Friday's semifinals of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Tennessee's was the lowest team point total in the six-year history of the tournament.
The Big Orange went nine minutes without a point in the first half and shot a frigid 26.0 percent (13 of 50) from the field for the game, including 21.7 percent (5 of 23) from 3-point range. The Vols were beaten so routinely on defense that the Cowboys shot 21 second-half free throws. Tennessee also came up short on the backboards, being outrebounded 40-30.
Despite better athletes on the inside, the trigger-happy Vols launched more than half of their first-half shots (13 of 24) from 3-point range. They wound up trying 23 threes and just 27 twos. That made for long rebounds and transition opportunities for Oklahoma State.
Making matters worse was the fact 6-foot-9 senior Kenny Hall, coming off a 14-point, 8-rebound effort versus UNC Asheville one day earlier, picked up two quick fouls and played just nine first-half minutes.
"Kenny Hall got those two early fouls, and it's hard to get in a rhythm," Cuonzo Martin said on his post-game show. "So now you start rotating several different guys in. You can't get bad fouls like that because you lose confidence.
"All of a sudden the game is stretched where there's an 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-point lead and you're hesitant on your shot, as opposed to shooting the shot, and we're not getting the ball inside like we need to. That kind of stuff happens. Then, all of a sudden, you start pressing in the game and bad fouling."
It was evident early that this would not be Tennessee's day. After a Hall half hook narrowed the gap to 8-7 with 15:59 left in the first half, the Vols went 9 minutes and 22 seconds without scoring. Oklahoma State made an 8-0 run during this stretch to go up 16-7 before Quinton Chievous finally broke the drought on a 3-pointer with 6:37 left to the break.
Oklahoma State answered with an 8-2 spurt, however, to go up by a dozen (24-12) en route to a 30-19 halftime lead.
After making just 29.1 percent of their shots (7 of 24) in the first half, the Vols seemed certain to shoot better after the break. Not so. They made a mere 6 of 26 attempts over the final 20 minutes, enabling the Cowboys to continue expanding their lead. The bulge peaked at 20 points (62-42) with 2:26 remaining.
"You have to give those guys credit," Martin said. "From start to finish they played a physical game. They played hard. We talked to our guys going into the game about Marcus Smart, Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown. Those are the keys to their team; that's how they win and lose ball games — going through those guys. Marcus Smart did a tremendous job of controlling the game."
Smart and Nash scored 17 points each to lead Oklahoma State, now 3-0. Brown chipped in 13. Chattanooga native Philip Jurick, who began his career at Tennessee, started for the Cowboys, producing 6 points and 5 rebounds in 19 minutes.
With 11 points, Trae Golden was the only double-figure scorer for Tennessee, now 2-1. Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae added 7 each.
Though disappointed by Friday's performance, Martin has no plans to browbeat his players as they watch the game film.
"When we lose ball games it's not a session where you're chastising guys," the coach said. "It's a learning situation.... You don't criticize. You don't beat guys down. You talk about 'Let's correct these errors and let's move forward.' It's a long season — this is the third game of the season — and you've got to learn from it and keep moving."
Following an off day on Saturday Tennessee concludes its participation in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Sunday afternoon against Friday night's North Carolina State-UMass loser. That game is scheduled to begin at 4 o'clock.