When Tennessee committed 11 turnovers en route to a 35-26 halftime deficit against a mediocre Georgia team Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena, one fan summed up the Vols with one crude but colorful sentence.
“Watching this team,” he said, “is like having a hemorrhoidectomy.”
Only those who have endured hemorrhoid surgery can vouch for the validity of that statement but this much is for certain: The Vols are painful to watch these days. A small crowd, generously listed as 14,876, sat quietly as Tennessee played 40 minutes on its home floor without taking a single lead. Except for a 43-43 tie with 14:29 remaining, Georgia's 68-62 victory was never in doubt.
The difference in the game was Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. When Tennessee pulled even at 43, he simply took over the game. A layup bumped the lead to 50-43 and a drive made it 54-46. When a 7-0 Tennessee spurt trimmed the deficit to 54-53, Pope hit a 3 from the left wing. He added a drive that bumped the lead to 63-58 with 1:34 remaining, then drained a 3 from the key that widened the gap to 66-58 with 52 seconds left.
Hemorrhoids or not, fans left their seats at this point to try and find some relief.
“Pope made the plays to win the game,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He made big shots – drove to the basket and made a couple of plays."
Ball-handling, a recurring problem of late, again proved Tennessee's undoing.
“You make it tough on yourself when you make 11 turnovers in the first half,” Martin said. “You've got to take care of the basketball.”
Tennessee should've learned that lesson Saturday at Arkansas, when 20 turnovers doomed the Vols in a 73-60 setback. Counting the first half versus Georgia, the Big Orange made 31 turnovers in three halves of basketball. The Vols committed just three second-half turnovers against the Dawgs but never managed to reclaim the momentum they surrendered in the first 20 minutes.
Tennessee's performance was especially lame coming out of the gate. The Vols trailed 8-2 after five minutes, thanks largely to six turnovers. At that point they were on pace to commit 48 turnovers in the game.
The home team's putrid start clearly gave Georgia a shot of confidence. Exhibiting poise and patience, the Bulldogs hit 50 percent (23 of 46) from the field, including a sizzling 55.0 percent (11 of 20) from behind the 3-point line.
“When you allow a team to get their heads up and get in a rhythm,” Martin said, “that's the result of it.”
Tennessee's defense was especially porous late. Georgia scored 14 points over the final 4:26, with Pope accounting for nine of them.
“Late in games we've got to get key stops,” Martin said. “Every man has to do his part. That's really more about pride on the defensive side of the ball, especially not allowing their best player to beat you. Put the ball in somebody else's hands and make somebody else beat you.”
Pope finished with 24 points, going 9 of 12 from the field, including 5 of 7 from 3, as Georgia improved to 11-11 overall and 5-4 in SEC play.
Jordan McRae led Tennessee with 17 points but committed 5 turnovers – all in the first half – in his ongoing struggle adjusting from off guard to point guard. Trae Golden, the Vols' most experienced point guard, missed his second game in a row with a strained hamstring. Clearly, his absence is being felt.
“We miss him a lot,” McRae said. “He playmakes for us a lot out there. He's one of our best playmakers, so without him out there, I think more guys need to step up and make plays.”
Certainly, Jarnell Stokes stepped up and made plays Wednesday night. The 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore contributed 16 points and 11 rebounds, posting his fourth consecutive double-double and fifth in the past six games.
The Vols, now 11-10 overall and 3-6 in the league, face South Carolina on Sunday afternoon in Columbia.