Antwaine Wiggins on career high night against Tennessee
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The students poured out of the stands, storming the court to celebrate.
Escaping the bedlam, a solitary figure in an orange jersey plodded down toward the locker room. Jordan McRae put his hands over his head and let go with an anguished groan that resonated in the empty hallway.
Welcome to mid-major hell.
Tennessee was a loser here Wednesday night, 71-65, taken down by the College of Charleston.
It wasn't necessarily an upset, not like the night the Cougars knocked off No. 9 North Carolina here at TD Arena nearly two years ago.
The Vols are vulnerable these days, even to the mid-majors of the college basketball world. Aside from Pittsburgh, Tennessee's four-game losing streak has been administered by Oakland, Austin Peay and now Charleston.
That's who Tennessee is these days.
"It was a good game,'' said UT coach Cuonzo Martin. "They found a way to win.''
He was right. It was a good game.
The Vols opened with great heart and toughed out a 13-point lead. Then Charleston dug in and chipped away.
The Cougars exploited UT's old nemesis, porous defense, scoring on eight of their final 10 possessions in the first half to close to 37-33.
Then they shot 65 percent in the second half. Not as good as Austin Peay's 72-percent second half last Saturday but in the same ballpark.
"It was a dogfight,'' said Charleston coach Bobby Cremins. "I was afraid we were going to be embarrassed there for a little bit.''
Cremins has lived in both ends of the basketball spectrum. He made his bones at Appalachian State then spent 19 seasons in the big leagues at Georgia Tech.
Now in the twilight of his career, he's enjoying another good run at Charleston.
Cremins was quick to thank the Charleston fans and just as quick to thank his counterpart on the Tennessee bench.
"I want to thank Cuonzo Martin,'' Cremins said. "He honored the contract that we made with Bruce Pearl.
"I appreciate them coming here. They brought a great atmosphere. It was a great win for us.''
Martin does deserve credit for not buying out of the Oakland and Charleston games. I can imagine some new coaches, realizing wins will come at a premium, would have sought a non-conference path of least resistance. The Vols have enough problems without coming to snakepits – very nice snakepits – like this one.
And it's not like Tennessee is the Lone Ranger when it comes to SEC teams with mid-major blemishes.
LSU has lost to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama. South Carolina has been knocked off by Elon and Tennessee State.
It's not just the bottom-feeders. Vanderbilt has lost at home to Cleveland State and No. 17 Mississippi State at home to Akron.
Strange things happen in December. Memphis got taken down at home by Murray State.
But the fact remains, even though it's painful for Tennessee fans to hear, there isn't much difference between the Vols and a decent mid-major these days.
The best player on the floor Wednesday night was Antwaine Wiggins, a 6-foot-7 wing forward from Greeneville, Tenn. He wasn't wearing orange, by the way.
After scoring 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting, Wiggins was talking about how much the game meant to him since he grew up wanting to play for the home-state Vols.
"You weren't good enough,'' a grinning Cremins interjected.
That drew laughs from everyone, including Wiggins.
I don't know what he looked like coming out of Greeneville, but by Wednesday night he was plenty good enough.
Cremins also mentioned that on Charleston's behalf he recruited Skylar McBee, who did, of course, end up at Tennessee.
Which again underscores that there isn't much difference between UT and the decent mid-majors. It's Martin's job to change that.
"That guy,'' Cremins said of Martin, "is going to do some recruiting and they're gonna be good.''