When Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl noticed Ramar Smith shooting 3-pointers in a recent practice, he stopped to make a point.
"I said why are you wasting your time on a shot you will not shoot in a game," Pearl said. "He kept working on it."
No. 2 Tennessee was well on its way to an 89-70 victory over Auburn when Smith's practice paid off. He made a 3-pointer, then winked at his coach.
The make was no more important than the attempt. It reflected the rise in confidence of UT's sophomore point guard and highlighted his highest scoring game of the season.
Smith went 6-for-7 from the field and 6-for-7 from the free-throw line in scoring 19 points Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. His timing couldn't have been better.
In looking ahead to Saturday's much-hyped match-up with unbeaten and No. 1 Memphis, Pearl pointed out that it was time for "everyone to step up." That's especially true for Smith, whose recent offensive slump didn't get near the attention of Chris Lofton's early season shooting struggles. But when Smith broke out of it with such a flourish against Auburn, UT fans were reminded of the damage he can inflict on a defense.
He did what he does best against Auburn. He broke down the Tigers' defense with repeated drives to the basket.
He didn't just drive. He finished.
"He had been getting to the basket, drawing contact and not getting calls," UT associate head coach Tony Jones said. "He got a little frustrated."
The frustration led to a drop in confidence, according to Jones. Smith's shooting dropped off as well. In the previous three games, he made only four of 18 field-goal tries. He went seven consecutive games without scoring in double figures.
There was nothing magical or mysterious about Smith's breakout game. I'm talking about practice.
"In the last couple of games, I hadn't been finishing," Smith said. "That's something I do.
"I just got in the gym and worked on things I'm basically comfortable doing. And I came out and showed it."
Smith also worked on something he's not as comfortable with.
"It (the 3) is something I work on," he said. "It's really not my strength. But it's a shot I can make and I need to make it. I can't let it get to me if I miss it."
He didn't come up with that strictly on his own. He has been hearing it from his coaches and teammates.
"We get on him for not shooting the ball - him and Tyler Smith," said guard JaJuan Smith.
Whether Ramar Smith shoots or passes at the end of his drive, it's the drive itself that makes him so valuable.
"Coach always tells him to be aggressive and attack the rim," Lofton said. "That's where me and JaJuan get our open shots."
Ramar Smith's most famous drive to the basket was a failure - not because of what he did, but because of what Ohio State center Greg Oden did. The Buckeyes' 7-foot All-American blocked Smith's shot from behind in the final seconds as Ohio State defeated UT 85-84 in the sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.
But it speaks volumes that Smith didn't shy away from one of the most intimidating figures in college basketball. As Jones puts it, "He embraces challenges."
Another challenge is coming up Saturday in Memphis.
"It's really like a national championship game," UT's point guard said. "So that's how we've got to look at it, then come out and do what we're capable of doing."
You saw what Ramar Smith is capable of doing Wednesday night.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.