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No. 7 Tennessee routs No. 12 Missouri 73-53 in SEC opener

JOE WALLJASPER
Associated Press
Tennessee's Santiago Vescovi, right, collides with Missouri's Xavier Pinson, left, as he brings the ball up court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, in Columbia, Mo.

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Yves Pons can help Tennessee win games even without scoring, yet he’s perfectly capable of dominating on offense, too.

On Wednesday night, the reigning Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year did a bit of everything, leading the seventh-ranked Volunteers to a 73-53 victory over 12th-ranked Missouri.

Pons scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked four shots to help Tennessee (7-0) win its SEC opener.

“Yves Pons was terrific,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s the player we know he can be. If you could have heard the reception he got when he came off the TV interview into the locker room, it would show you the respect his teammates have for him.”

Barnes said Pons, a bouncy 6-foot-6 senior forward, can guard any position on the floor. His early blocks caused Missouri players to alter their shots when they got into the lane. The Tigers (6-1) shot just 36% from the field.

“This is what I do. Play hard on defense, try to block shots, try to fix plays,” said Pons, a native of Haiti who grew up in France.

Pons had plenty of offensive help from an efficient Tennessee team. Santiago Vescovi scored 15 points, Jaden Springer had 13 and John Fulkerson added 11. The Volunteers relied on their mid-range game to shoot 50% from the field, and they hit 5 of 7 3-pointers.

Xavier Pinson led Missouri with 11 points. The Tigers had just four assists and 21 turnovers and were thoroughly frustrated by Tennessee’s defense.

“They played with more grit, more toughness and more focus,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said of Tennessee.

Playing its first road game of the year, Tennessee was right at home in Mizzou Arena. The Volunteers made their first seven shots to build a 21-4 lead. The second half was more of the same as the Volunteers hit their first three shots and scored eight points in the first minute and a half. Tennessee led by as many as 28 points.

On consecutive second-half possessions, Tennessee ran isolation plays for Pons on the left wing. Defender Parker Braun backed off, but Pons still drove past him to the basket, dunking on the first drive and drawing a foul on the second. Barnes told Pons they would run the play again, and the next time he should shoot a 3-pointer. Pons never got the chance, leaving at least one column blank on the stat sheet.

“We’re all just really excited for Yves,” Barnes said. “For a guy that works as hard as he works, as a team and a staff you get excited when he brings it like he did tonight.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers made sure Missouri didn’t get many chances to play at its preferred fast pace, partly because the Tigers began most possessions by pulling the ball from the net. Tennessee gave itself time to get set in its halfcourt defense by applying some token full-court pressure to Missouri’s guards.

Missouri: The Tigers’ offensive weakness is 3-point shooting. They entered the game making just 28% of their 3-pointers. Tennessee backed off Missouri’s shooters and invited them to shoot from long range. The Tigers couldn’t make the Volunteers pay for that strategy, making just 3 of 16 from beyond the arc.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to play Alabama on Saturday.

Missouri: The Tigers visit Arkansas on Saturday.