The result? A game on the verge of being a blowout regressed into a 76-67 victory.
Tennessee opened the second half with a 21-4explosion that swelled a 42-30 halftime lead to 63-34 with 11:40 left. The Vols apparently lost interest in playing defense at this point. After scoring 34 points in the game's first 28 minutes, Kennesaw State scored 33 points in the final 12.
Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin has seen it all before: A team gets a commanding lead and suffers "mental slippage, and the focus goes out the door."
Down 27, the Owls appeared on the verge of extinction. They hit a few shots once Tennessee relaxed on defense, however, and seemed to get their second wind.
"It's easy for a team that's down like that to come down and hit a couple of shots, then keep rolling because they've got nothing to lose," Vol senior Skylar McBee said. "It's hard sometimes to guard teams like that."
Junior guard Jordan McRae echoed those sentiments, noting: "Having a big lead like that, it's really hard to stay engaged and keep on doing everything you're supposed to do."
In addition to some defensive indifference by Tennessee, Kennesaw's comeback got a boost from offensive rebounding. The Owls won the backboard battle 31-29, thanks in large part to 15 offensive rebounds. Martin said the Vols did "a poor job of boxing out," but admitted that fear of injuries has caused him to limit rebounding drills in practice. That limitation is about to end, he said.
Tennessee got sloppy with the ball once it went up by 27 points, as well. After D'montre Edwards made a layup with 11:40 remaining, the Vols went almost eight minutes without a basket. The drought finally ended when Jarnell Stokes hit a layup with 3:59 to play off a bullet pass from McRae. That bucket ended a 21-7 Kennesaw run that had whittled the gap to 68-55.
Martin noted that his troops were "not as aggressive as we needed to be with that lead."
The Vols apparently made matters worse by allowing their offensive drought to affect their defensive intensity.
"We definitely slacked off," McRae said. "If we aren't scoring on offense, we can't let them score as many points as they did as easily as they did. We've got to box out and stick to what we do."
Despite the unimpressive victory margin, there were some very positive developments for Tennessee.
McRae came off the bench to score 14 points in 22 minutes, nailing 5 of 7 shots, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range. He also speared 4 rebounds, dished out 2 assists and blocked a shot.
McBee added 14 more points, hitting 4 of 7 from behind the arc. Kenny Hall hit 5 of 6 shots en route to a 13-point, 6-rebound effort. Kennesaw double-teamed All-America candidate Jarnell Stokes, limiting him to 10 points. Stokes did a beautiful job of passing out of the double teams, however, resulting in 5 assists. He also contributed 5 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 blocked shots.
Tennessee shot 60.5 percent as a team, including 58.3 percent (7 of 12) from 3. Still, this performance will be remembered for the late lapse that allowed Kennesaw to claw its way back into the game.
"I think we held them to three points the first nine minutes of the second half," McBee said. "We just needed to keep that intensity up for the rest of the half. If we do that, we keep that lead and I think we beat 'em pretty bad."
But the Vols didn't keep their intensity or their big lead.
"We lost some mental focus," Stokes said. "We can't allow that. That's something you learn in elementary school."