AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — After a first half in which Tennessee couldn't figure anything out, the Volunteers came up with the idea that enabled them to avoid an upset.
Tennessee made just three baskets in the entire first half Friday night, but capitalized on a huge discrepancy at the free-throw line to outlast Western Carolina 66-52 for its 300th victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols (7-3) are 300-104 at Thompson-Boling Arena, their home floor since the 1987-88 season.
"We were talking and we were like, 'We have 22 points, and 16 of them are free throws,'" Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said. "That should tell us we can get to the line whenever we want."
That's what they did the rest of the game. The Vols went 30 of 42 on free throws, while Western Carolina was 8 of 11.
Tennessee's three first-half baskets represented its lowest total for a half in six years. The Vols also made just three baskets in the second half of a 56-44 loss to Butler on Nov. 22, 2006.
But the Vols still led Western Carolina 22-18 at halftime because they played solid defense and continually got to the foul line. The Vols were 3 of 21 overall, 0 of 7 from 3-point range and 16 of 20 from the line in the first half.
Western Carolina committed 30 fouls as the Catamounts swarmed Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes virtually every time he got the ball near the basket. That foul trouble eventually sealed the Catamounts' fate.
"I thought the whole ballgame we competed well," Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter said. "The last 10 minutes of that first half, they were scoring on the foul line. That was a big difference in the game really if you look at the stat sheet."
Jordan McRae led Tennessee with 14 points, while Richardson and Stokes added 12 points each. Trae Golden scored 10 points as the Vols earned their third straight win. Tennessee's Kenny Hall had nine points and a career-high 13 rebounds after sitting out a 78-62 victory over Presbyterian on Tuesday with a strained hamstring.
Trey Sumler scored 23 points and Brandon Boggs had 15 for Western Carolina (4-8).
Tennessee dominated Western Carolina at the foul line and on the boards. The Vols outrebounded Western Carolina 45-30 and outscored the Catamounts 17-2 in second-chance points.
"(We had) 15 offensive rebounds," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "We thought that was a key for us. They were giving up 13 a game, and we thought we could take advantage in that department."
Before Tennessee pulled away with a late 18-2 run, all the elements for an upset seemed in place.
Hall converted a three-point play to open the scoring, but the Vols would go nearly 10½ minutes before making their next basket. Tennessee missed 14 of its first 15 shots as Western Carolina built a 10-point lead.
"With this being the last game before Christmas, I guess people weren't as focused, (were) ready to go home or whatever the case may be," Hall said. "We were pretty much talking about how we've still got a game to play."
Nothing worked for the Vols in the early going.
After sitting out each of the Vols' last two games because walk-on Brandon Lopez had replaced him in the rotation, backup point guard Armani Moore returned to action Friday and went right back to the bench after picking up three fouls in two minutes.
The Vols regained the lead by outscoring Western Carolina 18-4 over the last nine minutes of the first half. Tennessee staged much of that comeback without a true point guard on the floor. McRae, a versatile shooting guard, ran the offense while Golden briefly rested.
Tennessee exceeded its first-half basket total in the first four minutes of the second half, but the Vols couldn't put the Catamounts away and briefly fell behind.
"We don't really expect teams to just lay down and bow down to us," Hall said. "We expect a team to put up a fight. That's what they did. They put up a good fight."
James Sinclair's jumper gave Western Carolina a 38-37 lead with 11:57 remaining, but Tennessee responded with that 18-2 spurt and never looked back. Richardson and Hall teamed up to score the first 10 points of the run, while Skylar McBee capped it by sinking 3-pointer that gave the Vols a 15-point lead with 4:11 left.
Richardson scored 10 of his 12 points after halftime and made all five of his second-half shots. Richardson said he had received a text message from Martin before the game reminding him to stay aggressive on offense.
"Earlier in the season, I would have probably stopped attacking," Richardson said. "I just told myself to keep going to the rim in the second half, and it came."
Consider the message received.
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