Trailing by nine at halftime, it didn’t look like Tennessee would have enough offense to get past No. 15 Butler. The first half saw the Volunteers take a lot of bad shots by players that shouldn’t be taking shots to begin with and the Bulldogs were happy to just pack the paint and hit the glass hard like usual.
That game plan — and the game in general — changed dramatically in the final 20 minutes as Tennessee took smarter shots and ramped up a gambling, pressing style of defense in a 67-55 win over Butler.
After climbing up to No. 15 in the national rankings and surprising many with wins over North Carolina and Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Bulldogs looked like a completely average team in the second half against the Volunteers.
Tennessee threw everything they had defensively at Butler after the half and the Bulldogs were outscored 42-21 while being out-hustled in nearly every facet of the game. Butler is usually the school to utilize the underdog card by playing scrappy and outworking opponents, but Tennessee beat the Bulldogs at their own game in the second half and Butler (14) had twice the number turnovers of the Volunteers (seven).
Butler’s perimeter trio of Kellen Durham (16 points), Alex Barlow (six points) and Roosevelt Jones (six points) combined to go 9-for-32 from the field as they all struggled to generate consistent offense and get clean looks. The Bulldog offense couldn’t rely on much else after Kelan Martin’s 13 points off-the-bench, and down the stretch when they needed baskets to match Tennessee’s offense, Butler couldn’t gain momentum with those options staying relatively quiet.
The Volunteers, meanwhile, also flipped their offensive approach after a slow first half. Senior guard Josh Richardson gained his 2014 NCAA Tournament form in the second half as he finished with 20 points and six steals. Junior guard Kevin Punter also gave Tennessee a nice offensive lift in the second frame as he scored a season-high 18 points while actively hunting his own offense.
Once the Volunteer offense kept it simple, reduced outside shots and relied on Punter and Richardson to attack, they were much better off and the defense flying around the floor on the other end also led to turnovers and some easy buckets for them as well.
This is easily the biggest win of Donnie Tyndall’s first season at Tennessee so far and it gives the Vols some momentum heading into the New Year and the start of SEC play. The Volunteers don’t have a lot of shot-makers and overall talent this season, but they really play hard and can make things happen on the defensive end when they press because they have some long and athletic guards.
I’m not expecting Tennessee to make some magical run through the SEC into the postseason or anything, but they won’t be a particularly easy opponent as the season wears along.