KNOXVILLE — It once had the look of a laugher you might see in mid-December. Then it took on the intensity of what you’d expect for a March basketball game.
Tennessee — even without its most consistent scorer and top rebounder — got off to a fast start Tuesday night and held off feisty Savannah State, 65-51, in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament.
The Vols (19-14), seeded first in their quadrant of the 32-team bracket, will host either Marshall or Middle Tennessee State at a time that has yet to be announced.
UT forward Jeronne Maymon had a sore knee and did not play Tuesday night. Freshman Yemi Makanjuola made his first career start and scored 10 points with eight rebounds. Jarnell Stokes led the Vols with 13 points, Trae Golden added 11 and freshman Josh Richardson scored 10.
Rashad Hassan scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for the Tigers (21-12), who also got 14 points from Preston Blackman.
Aided by a loud general-admission crowd of 6,289, UT scored the game’s first 10 points and led 22-5 halfway through the first half. The Vols made seven of their first 14 shots, sank three of their first four 3-point attempts and had seven players combine for those 22 points.
The Tigers, regular-season champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, missed their first eight shots and were just 2-of-14 shooting at one point.
Fueled by UT turnovers and sluggish play, Savannah State cranked up the energy and trimmed the deficit to eight by halftime. The Tigers had eight first-half offensive rebounds and scored eight points off UT turnovers. However, Savannah State shot just 31 percent.
After UT scored the first three points of the second half, the Tigers ripped off nine in a row, and Blackman’s free throws with 14:31 made it 35-33 UT.
That’s when Makanjuola energized the crowd and started a 12-2 run that stretched the Vols’ lead back to double digits. The 6-foot-9 center from Nigeria blocked a shot, grabbed the ball and flung a long outlet pass that Golden turned into a layup. After another blocked shot, Makanjuola put back a Jordan McRae miss and was fouled, though he missed the free throw.
Richardson hit a pair of pull-up jump shots in the lane to cap UT’s run.
Blackman and UT guard Skylar McBee were involved in a scrum fighting for a loose ball. It appeared Blackman threw a forearm in McBee’s direction, though officials, after a long look at the replay of the incident on the video monitor, gave out no fouls on the play.
Hassan gave Stokes trouble inside most of the night, and he scored five points in a row that cut the gap to seven with more then four minutes left. The Vols were able to get enough stops defensively and make enough free throws down the stretch to ice the game.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...