Moments after Tennessee played perhaps its worst half of basketball all season, Rick Barnes contemplated making a change to the lineup.
The No. 5 Vols were on the ropes against the SEC’s last place Missouri Tigers at Mizzou Arena Tuesday night, trailing by three at halftime as a result of uncharacteristic turnovers and several scoring droughts.
Barnes’ decision, made after looking over the stat sheet, didn’t just help Tennessee avoid a disastrous upsetâIt completely changed the trajectory of the game, turning a deficit into a double-digit lead more than halfway through en route to a 72-67 victory that kept the Vols well within reach of a conference title.
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It started with moving away from Tennessee’s smaller lineup, which was coming off one of the most productive outings of the season three days before against Vanderbilt, and putting the game in the hands of its bigs.
Forwards Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka were dominant in the paint in the second half and while superstar guard Dalton Knecht got the offense rolling with 13 minutes left, it was their presence that made the difference.
“I told the team at halftime, I went down by the numbers and I said, ‘How about letting (Aidoo and Awaka) play a little bit? You know, let’s get them involved,’” Barnes said. “And they did…I thought both guys were playing with force.”
Aidoo scored 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, further proving himself as one of the top forwards in the league, but Awaka’s performance was the headliner.
Though Awaka was expected to make a significant jump this season after an impressive freshman campaign a year ago, seeing extended minutes on the floor has been hard to come by because of foul trouble.
Awaka played 22 minutes, the most he has recorded in a conference game this season. He totaled a career and game-high 18 points on 75% shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds for a double-double.
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When Tennessee entered the locker room at the intermission, it was losing on the boards, 22-20 while shooting just 30% from the field. By the time the buzzer sounded, the Vols held a 39-34 edge in rebounds and shot more than 55%.
“I obviously wasn’t happy with the fact that the way we were playing offense (in the first half), everything that we talked about. We lost our poise again where everybody’s trying to go one-on-one,” Barnes said. “We didn’t know where shots were coming from. And if you don’t know where shots were coming from, because we weren’t executing and what we’re supposed to do, we’re not in position to rebound the ball…
“First half, I thought (Missouri) beat us on all the 50-50 balls. And the second half, we came out, fought forward. The post guys got it done for us tonight.”
The efforts of Aidoo and Awaka provided Knecht with a strong supporting cast as he put on another second half spectacular, turning just two first half pointsâboth free throwsâinto a 17-point showing.
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After Missouri took its largest lead to that point at six points in the early-going of the period, Aidoo kept Tennessee within striking distance with a layup. An Awaka jumper helped the Vols withstand another Tigers run a few minutes later.
Then Knecht started to take over.
He started with a jumper, his first field goal of the night, with 13 minutes, 18 seconds left and then followed it up with a 3-pointer. Knecht put Tennessee ahead for good with a layup with just over 10 minutes to go.
That lead swelled to 11âTennessee’s largest at that pointâwith four minutes left off an Awaka dunk. It was the exclamation point on a career night that couldn’t have come at a better time.
“(Knecht) got going. I mean, that’s what he does,” Barnes said. “…And we got two big guys in there, let those guys come and make a play.”