Defense carries No. 5 Tennessee past Georgia Tech 66-53
By STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — No. 5 Tennessee celebrated its first top-five ranking in more than a decade by showcasing the stingy defense that helped these Volunteers earn their rare status.
Grant Williams scored 22 points as Tennessee beat cold-shooting Georgia Tech 66-53 on Tuesday night, one day after the Vols (3-0) moved up a spot in the Top 25 to reach the top five for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
Georgia Tech (1-1) shot just 27.6 percent from the field — its lowest mark since Josh Pastner took over as coach in 2016. The Yellow Jackets had nearly twice as many fouls (30) as baskets (16).
“You’ve got to hang your hat on something, and for the last few years we’ve tried to hang our hat on our defense,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We really have.”
Tennessee is doing a better job than ever in that regard. Through their first three games of the season, the Volunteers have allowed opponents to shoot just 29.3 percent from the floor.
After Georgia Tech made the game’s first basket, Tennessee scored the next seven points and stayed in control the rest of the way.
The Yellow Jackets missed 15 straight shots during one stretch, including their first 11 attempts of the second half. They didn’t make their first second-half basket until Jose Alvarado sank a 3-pointer with 12:12 left.
“Tennessee’s a great team,” Pastner said. “They’ve got a realistic chance of being in the Final Four and obviously winning the SEC. We’ve got to get better, and we will continue to get better. I really like this young squad that we’ve got.”
Georgia Tech managed to hang around and cut Tennessee’s lead to 45-37 on another basket by Alvarado with 10:08 remaining, but the Volunteers responded with seven straight points.
Jordan Bone had 15 points and Kyle Alexander added 12 for Tennessee. Brandon Alston led Georgia Tech with 16.
Tennessee’s defense enabled the Vols to win on a night when they shot just 39.6 percent (19 of 48) from the field and 63.2 percent (24 of 38) at the foul line.
“It was great to have a competitive game where we truly had to play the entire 40 minutes,” Williams said. “We were really sloppy. We stopped ourselves at times, so we need to do a better job with that.”
Tennessee played a third straight game without guard Lamonte’ Turner, who has a shoulder injury. Turner averaged 10.9 points and was the SEC’s co-sixth man of the year last season.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets lacked the outside shooting that helped them beat Lamar 88-69 in their season opener. Georgia Tech went just 3 of 19 from beyond the arc. Georgia Tech’s 12 3-point baskets and 30 3-point attempts against Lamar were the most by the Yellow Jackets under Pastner.
Tennessee: After winning its first two games by an average margin of 33.5 points, Tennessee passed a tougher test before heading to the NIT Season Tip-Off next week in Brooklyn, New York. After facing Louisville in the first round, Tennessee will meet No. 2 Kansas or No. 24 Marquette.
Georgia Tech received some good news earlier in the day as the NCAA granted a waiver allowing Texas transfer James Banks III to play immediately for the Yellow Jackets rather than sitting out the season. The 6-foot-10 forward had five points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes before fouling out.
“He gives us something where we can play big in some different lineups,” Pastner said. “There’s times because of the way we’re playing that we’re going to be in foul trouble. Our two games, we’ve been in foul trouble. So it’s good to have that extra depth.”
The game marked a return to Knoxville for Georgia Tech guard Shembari Phillips, who played two seasons at Tennessee before transferring. Phillips started and played 22 minutes but scored just two points.
The teams combined for 49 fouls and 59 free throws. … Alexander, a senior, made just the third 3-pointer of his career in his 71st start. … Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden made one basket and scored only five points but had a career-high 11 rebounds.
Georgia Tech hosts East Carolina on Friday.
Tennessee faces Louisville on Nov. 21 in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn.
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