Tennessee led by as many as 27 points midway through the second half, but the Owls battled back down the stretch. But the Volunteers went 13 of 19 from the free-throw line in the second half to put the game away.
The Owls could not slow down the Volunteers, who seemed to hit nearly every shot they took.
Tennessee shot 60.5 percent from the field, including 70.8 percent in the first half, while holding Kennesaw State 46.2 percent for the contest.
McRae came off the bench to shoot 5-of-7 from the field, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said he considers McRae a starter because of the junior guard’s ability to provide an immediate impact on the offensive end of the court.
“If that’s going to be my role then I’m going to embrace it,” McRae said. “Coming off the bench, I’m just trying to be a spark for our team. If our team comes out flat, I’m going to try and be a spark.”
Kenny Hall scored 13 and Jarnell Stokes added 10 for the Vols. It was Tennessee’s 14th consecutive season-opening victory.
Delbert Love and Aaron Anderson led Kennesaw State with 16 points each.
Tennessee ended the first half on an 8-2 run to take a 42-30 lead, its largest of the half.
The run seemed to knock the wind out of the Owls.
Kennesaw State stumbled out of the gate to start the second half. The Owls did not make a basket the first 6 minutes until a Love jumper ended the drought. But Tennessee had extended its lead to 54-33 with 13:45 remaining in the game.
Kennesaw State’s Markeith Cummings, who entered the game 81 points shy of becoming the Owls’ all-time leading scorer, finished with six points on
2-of-8 shooting. He was held scoreless until a lay-in at the 10:59 mark of the second half.
“When a team’s down like that, they’ve really got nothing to lose so sometimes it’s hard to defend that,” said McBee. “In the second half, we’ve just got to do a better job of cutting down on mental mistakes, boxing out and making shots from the free-throw line.”
But the Owls didn’t quit.
An Anderson layup with 7:54 left in the game culminated a 13-2 Owls run that cut the Vols lead to 63-47.
Then Tennessee went on a drought of its own and didn’t have a field goal the final 3:09 of the game — and had just two baskets over the game’s final 11 minutes.
Still, the Vols managed hold onto a double-figure lead the entire second half until a Nigel Brown lay-in with nine seconds left ended the scoring.
Tennessee was without Jeronne Maymon, who is out indefinitely after suffering a setback recovering from offseason knee injury. Maymon was the Vols’ leading scorer and rebounder last season.
Because of Maymon’s absence, Stokes faced a double-team most of the night. He had five assists to go along with five steals, five rebounds and three blocks.
“I really felt like I could score anytime I got the ball, but double-teams, that’s something I really need to work on so tonight was a good test for me,” Stokes said.” I just had to trust in my teammates to make plays and they did.”
The Vols’ next game is a Nov. 15 matchup with UNC Asheville in the opening round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, while the Owls play at South Carolina State on Nov. 12.