Tennessee coach Rick Barnes used to walk down the railroad tracks with his brother and sneak into the gym to watch Lenoir-Rhyne basketball games when he was a kid.
Barnes returned the favor on Tuesday night by welcoming the Bears to his new home at Thompson-Boling Arena, but he didn’t show his alma mater any mercy on the scoreboard.
Jordan Bone scored 18 points and Kyle Alexander added 16 as No. 6 Tennessee opened the season with an 86-41 victory over Lenoir-Rhyne.
Barnes lettered for three seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne. Barnes is a native of Hickory, North Carolina, where Lenoir-Rhyne is located. He still closely follows all Lenoir-Rhyne sports and praised the progress head coach Everick Sullivan has made with the basketball program.
“Obviously our size and strength was able to get to them, but I do think he is working to do the right things,” Barnes said. “It’s a good time to be an LR Bear, and I am proud of my college and my university.”
The game against the Division II opponent counts on Tennessee’s overall record, but Lenoir-Rhyne counted the game as an exhibition.
In front of a crowd of 16,156, the Volunteers opened a season of heightened expectations. The defending Southeastern Conference co-champions return all five starters, and their No. 6 ranking is their highest ever in the preseason poll.
Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield filled up the stat sheet for the Vols. Williams had 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Schofield had 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
Lenoir-Rhyne’s 3-point shooting kept things close early in the first meeting between the programs. The Bears started out 6 of 10 from beyond the arc, forcing Barnes to call a timeout when R.J. Gunn and Jalen Johnson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to draw within 20-18.
Bolstered by a flurry of steals, the Vols emerged from the break on an 8-0 run. Alexander punctuated the spurt with dunk on the break off an alley-oop pass from Jordan Bowden. The Vols led 50-30 at halftime.
“Both Bone and Grant with their full-court defense kept getting stops at the front,” said Alexander, who finished with four blocked shots. “I remember coming in and not having to play any defense on the first three possessions because Bone and Grant were just doing a great job at the front, so that was really the turning point for us.”
Tennessee didn’t let up to start the second half, opening with a 19-0 run that spanned nearly nine minutes. Lenoir-Rhyne burned two timeouts within the first six minutes to try and stem the tide, but Tennessee kept coming in waves.
Throughout the game, the Vols demonstrated its athleticism with high-flying dunks and blocks. Yves Pons, a sophomore from France, brought the fans to their feet midway through the second half with an emphatic swat on one end followed by a putback on the other.
After its early 3-point prowess, Lenoir-Rhyne made only one of its last 25 attempts from beyond the arc. The Bears shot only 20.9 percent (14 of 67) from the field overall and didn’t have a player reach double figures in points. Manny Wembi led the Bears with nine.
“It was like a war of attrition when you are dealing with that size and that athleticism. There is no way our guys can maintain that physicality they are throwing at your unless you are making 3s,” Sullivan said. “That was our game plan, to see if we could make 3s and stay within striking distance. They followed the game plan. They just didn’t make enough shots.”
Lenoir-Rhyne: The trip to Knoxville was a no-lose situation for the Bears. They got to play a Division I opponent in a major venue and weren’t expected to win. Lenoir-Rhyne gave its players a great experience that won’t impact its overall record. The Bears won’t see a better team all season. “They understand the ramifications,” Sullivan said of his players. “There are none.”
Tennessee: The Vols are easing into the season with their first two games against Lenoir-Rhyne and Louisiana-Lafayette before a challenging stretch begins with games against Georgia Tech, Louisville and either No. 1 Kansas or Marquette.
Tennessee was shorthanded in the backourt with guards Lamonte’ Turner and Jalen Johnson sitting out with injuries. Barnes said he expects both to play Friday against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Vols outscored the Bears 46-12 in the paint, scored 22 points off turnovers and assisted on 23 of their 34 made baskets.
Lenoir-Rhyne hosts Young Harris on Friday.
Tennessee hosts Louisiana-Lafayette on Friday.
Source: The Associated Press