Tennessee men’s basketball MVP of the week: Grant Williams

With two home wins against strong opponents Kentucky and Kansas State, Tennessee men’s basketball had a successful week. It was a pair of big wins for a team that has hopes of making the NCAA Tournament. Both wins came thanks to incredible team efforts, but one player was absolutely vital to the Vols’ success this week: Grant Williams.

The 6-foot-5-inch forward from Charlotte, North Carolina, had a pair of fantastic performances that added to a successful freshman season. Williams averaged 15 points, six rebounds and four assists this week.

Senior guard Robert Hubbs III was the team’s leading scorer against Kentucky with 25 points, but Williams poured in 13 of his own and filled the stat sheet with six rebounds, six assists, three steals and four blocks. While Hubbs carried the scoring load, Williams was effective on both ends of the floor and did everything he could to help the Vols pull off the big upset.

Although Williams was key to Tennessee’s upset on Tuesday, he cemented himself as Tennessee’s most valuable player for the week during Saturday’s game against Kansas State. The Wildcats double-teamed Hubbs every time he got the ball, but the Vols didn’t work to get him open and in a good position to score. Instead, Williams took over, leading the team with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting. The freshman forward opened the second half by scoring the Vols’ first eight points, helping Tennessee set the tone and hold on to its first-half lead to push the Vols to the SEC’s first win during the SEC-Big 12 challenge. Williams added six rebounds and a pair of assists to his 17-point performance.

Williams was also on the court for the majority of both games, including a team-high 34 minutes against Kansas State. His minutes on the floor showed an impressive amount of conditioning as well as the ability to avoid foul trouble.

While Hubbs stole the show on Monday with a great performance against Kentucky, and Lew Evans got plenty of love from the crowd on Saturday, there wasn’t a player on the roster that was more consistent or important this week to the team’s success than Grant Williams. If he continues his level of play, Rick Barnes and company will continue to be a very competitive team, both this season and beyond.

Edited by Nathan Odom 

Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

 

Kyle Alexander’s post presence propels Tennessee over Kansas State

Kyle Alexander spent most of Saturday afternoon navigating through a crowd of Kansas State players, corralling missed shots and gifting the Vols extra possessions.

It wasn’t as flashy as Lamonte Turner’s ankle-breaking crossover later in the game or Lew Evans’ 3-pointer that sent Thompson-Boling Arena into a frenzy, but Alexander’s performance below the rim set the tone for Tennessee’s 70-58 victory over Kansas State during Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 challenge.

The sophomore’s stat line featured a modest eight points and nine rebounds, but included five critical offensive rebounds that helped Tennessee avoid a let-down performance after its upset over Kentucky earlier in the week.

“I’m really happy and proud of Kyle Alexander,” head coach Rick Barnes said. “…he was going after it…we won today against a really good basketball team. We told our team in some ways this is the toughest team we’ve played.”

From the opening tip-off, Alexander wasted no time establishing his presence down-low, which was instrumental to Tennessee’s quick start. With the Vols up 6-2, Alexander grabbed his first offensive rebound and followed it with a tip-in. On Tennessee’s following possession, Alexander grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds, which eventually resulted in a Jordan Bowden layup that gave the Vols a 10-2 advantage.

The sequence of events was symbolic of the afternoon, as Tennessee edged Kansas State in total rebounds (43-29), offensive rebounds (16-7), second-chance points (23-6) and points in the paint (34-20).

After the home team took a 39-22 lead into halftime, Grant Williams scored the Vols’ first eight points in the second half the suddenly scorching Wildcats and their barrage of 3-point shots. Williams finished the game with a team-high 17 points. Both Jordan Bowden and Robert Hubbs III reached double figures in scoring, finishing with 13 and 10 points respectively.

But despite valuable contributions from a number of players, Tennessee’s lead was threatened on multiple occasions thanks to Kansas State’s outside shooting. After converting on zero 3-pointers in the first half, the Wildcats drained five shots from beyond the arc during the first chunk of the second half. Luckily for Barnes and company, however, the Vols’ offense refused to let their lead slip.

“When we were up…we told the guys it wasn’t going to be easy,” Barnes said. “…it’s never going to be easy. If you think you’re gonna blow somebody out, it’s not gonna happen.”

Tennessee saw its double-digit lead slip when the Wildcats cut the lead to 57-48 later in the second half, but after a long period of silence from the team’s tone-setter, Alexander grabbed another crucial offensive rebound, drew the foul and knocked down a free throw to bring Tennessee’s lead back to ten.

Williams later mimicked Alexander with a layup after hauling in an offensive rebound of his own, putting Tennessee up 62-50 late in the game. While Alexander didn’t make the play, his performance earlier in the game boosted his team’s energy.

“He set the tone for us offensively and defensively,” Williams said of Alexander’s play. “…he inspired us to play for him.”

Tennessee (12-9, 4-4) travels to Auburn, Alabama next to take on the 13-7 Auburn Tigers next Tuesday. Tipoff is scheduled for 9 p.m. ET.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee outlasts No. 4 Kentucky, 82-80

Three times during the postgame press conference, Kentucky head coach John Calipari quoted New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, saying, “You’ve got to do what’s right for the team, not what’s right for you.”

His team didn’t follow that advice, however, as the No. 4 Wildcats fell to an unranked Tennessee team 82-80 in Knoxville. It was Calipari’s second loss to the Volunteers in as many years.

In past games this season, Tennessee has been known to take teams that look much better on paper down to the final moments, only to lose in gut-wrenching fashion. Losses to Oregon, Wisconsin, Gonzaga and North Carolina are all examples.

This time, however, the script was flipped, as the Vols took hold of the game from the beginning, only to stomp their feet on the pedal once things got tough. Tennessee led by as many as 11, but in the last few minutes, Kentucky did what Kentucky does: claw back from the brink of defeat.

This time, it wasn’t enough.

After the game, Calipari gave credit where it was due, saying, “Tennessee was better than us tonight. They deserved to win the game.”

Robert Hubbs III led the Vols with 25 points, two of which came on a rim-rocking dunk that gave his team a commanding seven-point lead with 2:43 to go.

On Hubbs, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes commented, “We wanted to put the ball in his hands. You’ve got to have a player that can make some tough shots.”

Hubbs wasn’t the only one making the tough ones, though, as Grant Williams’s jumper with 14 seconds to go iced the game for the Vols, making the score an all-but-insurmountable 80-75. Lamonte Turner’s two free throws put Tennessee at its final score, and while a last-ditch three-pointer by Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe made the score 82-80, it was already too late.

Malik Monk led the Wildcats with 25 points and three rebounds, followed closely by freshman Bam Adebayo’s 21 points and five rebounds.

Tennessee went 50 percent from three-point range, but its biggest advantage of the night came from the sidelines. In points off the bench, the Vols logged 37 to Kentucky’s meager four. They also beat the ‘Cats on the inside, notching 42 points in the paint to Kentucky’s 28. Finally, Tennessee committed nine turnovers, an amount that is only excusable when comparing it to Kentucky’s 14.

This time last year, the Vols came back from what was at one point a 21-point deficit to beat the Wildcats in Knoxville. After having maintained control the entire game on Tuesday night, Barnes gave his players an enormous compliment in saying, “The fact is, I thought our guys really deserved to win tonight. I thought for 40 minutes, that it’s the best we’ve played all year.”

The Vols play next on Saturday, as they face the visiting Kansas State Wildcats in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.

Tip-off is slated for 2 p.m. ET, and the game will be shown on ESPN2.

Edited by Quinn Pilkey

Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics