KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Yves Pons felt no jitters as he showcased his athleticism in his first career start.
With the sixth-ranked Volunteers attempting to bounce back from their first loss of the season, coach Rick Barnes sought an energy boost by having Pons replace Jordan Bowden in the lineup.
The sophomore swingman from France responded with a career-high 10 points and several highlight-worthy plays in a 95-67 blowout of Eastern Kentucky.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Pons said. “I talked to my dad, and he just told me to play my game and do what I do.”
Grant Williams had 21 points and 11 rebounds as Tennessee (5-1) breezed in its first game since an 87-81 overtime loss to No. 2 Kansas at the NIT Season Tip-Off. Admiral Schofield added 20 points while shooting 8 of 9.
Pons didn’t provide as much scoring as those two guys, but he made up for it with hustle plays to reward Barnes’ first starting lineup change of the season.
“He’s a glue kind of guy,” Barnes said. “Some guys are out there just trying to score, and you need some of those guys, but you can’t have everybody doing that. That’s what I like about Yves.”
The 6-foot-6 Pons grabbed an offensive rebound and sank a 3-pointer on the game’s first possession. He delivered two dunks off alley-oops and also produced a pair of blocks.
He showcased the athletic ability that has drawn raves from teammates ever since he arrived on campus.
“Everything he did tonight, he does every day in practice,” said Tennessee guard Jordan Bone, who had 14 points and seven assists.
Eastern Kentucky (3-4) and Tennessee were tied 11-all seven minutes into the game before the Volunteers scored 13 straight points to pull ahead for good. After Lachlan Anderson’s 3-pointer cut Tennessee’s lead to 24-14, the Vols scored eight straight points to complete a 21-3 spurt.
Pons’ energy played a major part in that surge.
“I just think the more he plays, the better he’s going to get,” Barnes said.
Nick Mayo had 23 points and nine rebounds for Eastern Kentucky, which trailed 49-28 at halftime. Jomaru Brown added 14 points.
“We didn’t handle adversity well in the first half,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “Then we come back in the second half, and we do a lot better job. It was 46-39. I thought we did some really good things. We knew this was going to be a huge challenge. They’re really, really good.”
Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels entered the night averaging 86.3 points to rank 25th among Division I teams in scoring, but they struggled more than usual against Tennessee’s stingy defense. Eastern Kentucky shot 35.6 percent and posted its lowest point total of the season. The Colonels had reached the 100-point mark in two of their first six games.
Tennessee: The Vols just got finished playing Louisville and No. 2 Kansas in New York and have games with No. 1 Gonzaga and Memphis later this month, so it would have been easy for them to overlook this matchup. That didn’t happen.
NEW ROLE FOR BOWDEN
This marked only the third time that Bowden has come off the bench in a Tennessee career that has included 68 starts. The junior guard scored seven points in 20 minutes.
“He can do more,” Barnes said. “We just feel like he’s been very tentative. We don’t want any of our players to be tentative. We don’t want that. That’s what we feel. That’s why we made the change as much as anything. We need him to be aggressive and we need him to want more out of himself.”
Tennessee out-rebounded Eastern Kentucky 50-32 and had 18 offensive boards. … Pons missed all three of his free-throw attempts and is 1 of 8 from the foul line this season. … Mayo now has 1,755 career points, putting the Eastern Kentucky senior 77 away from Matt Witt’s school scoring record.
Eastern Kentucky is at High Point on Saturday.
Tennessee hosts Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Sunday.