KNOXVILLE — Unlike some college basketball teams around the country, Tennessee did not play a game aboard an aircraft carrier Friday.
Yet the Volunteers' season opener was choppy enough that it felt like it was played on water.
After building a 27-point second-half lead, Tennessee coasted to a 76-67 win against plucky Kennesaw State on Friday night at Thompson-Boling Arena to start Cuonzo Martin's second season as coach.
"Like Coach Martin told us in the locker room, we had some mental lapses," said wing Jordan McRae, who scored 14 points off the bench. "I took a bad shot at the end, and we had some other guys take some ill-advised shots. We've just got to stay focused throughout the game.
"When we have leads like that, it's really hard to stay mentally focused, and we did a poor job of that toward the end."
After outscoring the Owls 22-11 in the first half's final eight minutes, the Vols began the second half with a 17-3 run and led 61-34 with 11:40 left in the game. They then failed to make a field goal over the next 9:41, and Kennesaw State's 18-4 run made the game interesting.
The Owls, who won three games and went winless in the Atlantic Sun Conference last season, got no closer than 13 until there was only a minute left.
"You get up so big on a lead, and the mental slippage, the focus, goes out the door," Martin said. "They made a run. It doesn't matter a team's record from the past.
"It's a new team, a new season and they wanted to come in here and play well."
Skylar McBee also scored 14 points and made four 3-pointers for Tennessee. In addition to his 10 points, Jarnell Stokes set career highs in assists (five) and steals (five) and rounded out his line with five rebounds and three blocked shots. As many teams likely will do with Jeronne Maymon (knee) out indefinitely, Kennesaw State double-teamed Stokes, but the 6-foot-8 sophomore was patient and efficient in surveying his options.
"I thought he did a really good job of posting, sealing, getting position and passing out of that double team," Martin said. "He does a really good job of making passes and making decisions with the ball. It's tough for one guy to contain him the whole night.
"I'd like to take the credit for him being patient, but he does that on his own. He does a real good job of slowing down and making the right decisions. In most cases with a double team, you've got to feel it."
The game was slowed by 25 fouls and 53 free throws. Kennesaw State outplayed the Vols down the stretch, but Tennessee shot 70 percent in the first half and made eight consecutive shots early in the second half. The undersized Owls hustled their way to 15 offensive rebounds and scored 21 points off 13 Tennessee turnovers.
"The poor job of boxing out is our guys not putting bodies on guys, but also me not spending a lot of time with it in practice," Martin said. "It gets physical, and you get key guys injured on box-out drills. We just talk about it as opposed to doing a lot of drills, so part of that's my fault."
Stokes scoffed at that notion.
"I really think Coach Martin's just putting that on himself," he said. "That's something you learn in elementary school: Find a guy, box him out and get the rebound. I think Coach Martin is just putting a lot of the blame on himself, and really, it's on us [because] we do it practice all the time.
"He said it's a good win. But he said we shouldn't be happy with the way we finished. It just gives up something to work on in practice."
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 ...