January 08, 2016

Texas A&M survived its worst shooting night of the season in someone else's building, but its next opponent seems less likely to let it slip through the cracks.

Tennessee, unbeaten at home, enters Saturday's meeting coming off a prettier victory and will now try to stop the 21st-ranked Aggies short of matching their best start in the SEC since joining the conference in 2012-13.

The Aggies (12-2, 2-0) escaped with Wednesday's 61-60 win at Mississippi State despite shooting a season-low 30.6 percent with 19 field goals made. It was the first time they'd won while shooting under 35.0 percent in more than three years.

"I'm real proud of our guys for fighting through it," said coach Billy Kennedy, whose team can win six straight for the second time this season and open SEC play 3-0 for the second time in the last three seasons. "We didn't shoot the ball well. We didn't finish around the basket like we have and you've got to give Mississippi State some credit for that. But we found a way to win."

That was on the offensive glass, where A&M got a season-high 20 rebounds and held a plus-10 advantage. Replicating it seems less likely against Tennessee, which held a 48.5-38.5 rebounding edge in two conference games with 19.0 per game on the offensive end - but the Aggies might be less reliant on second chances with a key player back.

Second leading scorer Danuel House, who averages 15.2 points, missed the Mississippi State game because of a personal matter and is expected back against the Volunteers.

The Aggies have won the last three meetings, though all four since they joined the SEC have been tight, with Tennessee's 93-85 four-overtime win in 2012-13 the largest margin of victory for either. The latest meeting was a 67-61 win for the Aggies in Tennessee on Jan. 24 in which Jalen Jones scored 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting.

Jones, the team's top scorer at 15.8 points per game, has averaged 18.4 in his last five despite being held to 11 while going 3 of 13 against the Bulldogs.

Tennessee's top scorer has been a bit hotter. Kevin Punter Jr. ranks second in the conference with 23.1 points per game and had 26 in Wednesday's 83-69 home win over Florida. The guard has averaged 26.7 and shot 57.4 percent while going 7 of 14 from 3-point range in the last three games as offseason adjustments settle in.

First-year coach Rick Barnes suggested Punter alter the mechanics of his shot this offseason, which was initially met with timidity.

"I didn't want to do it, to be honest with you, just for the simple fact that I've been (shooting that way) all my life," Punter said. "I always knew my shot was ugly. I didn't want to do it, but I said, 'I'm going to give it a try.'

"And to be honest with you, it worked out."

The Volunteers (8-6, 1-1) have gotten to 8-0 at home after closing last season with five straight losses on their own court. They made 20 of 39 shots for a 53-31 halftime lead, and that advantage grew to 30 in the second half before things cooled off.

"We started turning the ball over and not executing," Barnes said. "But it was a great win for us. It really was. I'm really happy for our guys. We came out, and without question, it was the best game we've played all year."

Barnes will now try to take down a ranked opponent for the first time with his new team, and Tennessee has won seven of its last 10 home games against the Top 25 with all of the losses coming against top-three teams.

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