All eyes were on the Tennessee backcourt as the Vols took the hardwood for their season opener Tuesday night against UNC-Asheville.
Freshman Josiah-Jordan James made his first start for Tennessee alongside Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden. However, while Turner and Bowden both put up good numbers, it was the Tennessee frontcourt, specifically Yves Pons, that turned heads.
Pons finished the game with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and added seven rebounds and three blocks as the Vols started slow, but cruised to a 78-63 win over UNC-Asheville to notch their 27th consecutive victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“He (Pons) works so hard, and I thought he improved so much just from the exhibition game until now,” coach Rick Barnes said. “Yves is a great worker. I can put him up against anybody in the country. He’s going to do everything he can to do it right.”
With the Vols adjusting to a shorter lineup, Pons is playing down in the paint for the first time in his Tennessee career. After struggling the last two years at the guard position, playing as a forward may be just what the doctor ordered for Pons.
“I am just doing my role and to do what they ask me to do,” Pons said. “It was a good challenge for me to go to the four. I put the work in, and it is starting to pay off. I feel really comfortable, and I am just trying to do my job.”
A week after Barnes was disappointed with his two seniors, Turner and Bowden, turning the ball over in their exhibition game, the giveaway issues showed up again.
In the first half alone, Turner had four turnovers while Bowden had three. The duo seemed keen on pushing the tempo after Asheville missed shots which led to multiple errant passes that left Barnes unhappy with his guards.
In total, the Vols had 17 turnovers.
“I am disappointed in our senior play,” Barnes said. “My frustration is in Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden. Two games in a row they combine for 10 turnovers. They haven’t done that since they’ve been here.
“I love Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden. I love those guys. I have really high expectations for them. Do I expect them to be perfect? I don’t. But do I expect them to be better than they have done protecting the ball? Absolutely.”
With James struggling in the game as well, finishing with two points and four fouls, two other Tennessee freshmen picked up the pace.
Oliver Nkahmhoua had seven points and seven rebounds, including a dunk to end the first half. Coming off a hand injury that kept him out of most of the preseason, Davonte Gaines played just 10 minutes but made the most of it. He finished with nine points on 4-of-7 shooting and had three rebounds.
“Being out here tonight, it was breathtaking when I first stepped out on the court,” Gaines said. “I was just trying to do my role, filling my lane, giving guys outlets to pass to and just being in the right place on offense for the ball to come to me.”
After a turnover plagued first half, the Vols came out of the locker room with a purpose to start the second.
Up 44-31, Pons scored down-low. Then, seconds later, Jalen Johnson drained a three-pointer that made it a 49-31 game. UNC-Asheville was able to inbound the ball but, seconds later again, Turner stole it and laid the ball in for a 20-point lead. Tennessee did all of that in just 29 seconds.
The highlights continued later in the half, this time in a two-minute span when Gaines hit a three-pointer, John Fulkerson dunked, Lamonte Turner hit a three and Gaines slammed a dunk home to cap off the 8-0 run. Gaines got a little too excited after the dunk though, slapping the backboard and picking up a technical foul.
Tennessee went on to outscore UNC-Asheville 42-35 in the second half. An 11-2 run by the Bulldogs to end the game made the game appear closer than it really was.
Four of the Volunteers starters had double-digit point totals with Turner leading the way with 17. Bowden and Fulkerson each added 10 while Fulkerson was a rebound shy of a double-double.
UT has a week off before being back in action as they take on Murray State next Tuesday at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.