Kenny Hall talks about the win over ETSU and the signing of Jarnell Stokes
Trae Golden delivered time and again in the final minutes Friday night. A basket, an assist for a Kenny Hall dunk, two clutch free throws.
Then he delivered the surprising line to sum it all up:
"It's a good Christmas to be a Vol.''
That's a pronouncement hardly anyone expected to hear last week when Tennessee's basketball team limped out of Charleston, S.C., mired in a four-game losing streak, the stench of the Austin Peay debacle still clinging to their sneakers.
But what a week it's been. Three times the program has pulled one out in the end.
On the court, the Vols came back from the near-dead Tuesday night to beat UNC Asheville.
Friday night, they repeated the late heroics, rallying from a 59-51 deficit to defeat ETSU 66-63 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
And in between, coach Cuonzo Martin pulled a blue-chip Memphis rabbit out of his hat in the person of Jarnell Stokes.
UT wasn't supposed to win this recruiting battle in Martin's first year. Too much ground to make up. And in Memphis? You gotta be kidding.
But Martin made it up and an elite, 6-foot-8 forward will be joining the team after Christmas. Which qualifies an even bigger come-from-behind
win than either of his team's games this week.
"He's a good player,'' said junior guard Skylar McBee. "We're definitely happy to have him.''
"He's a physical dude,'' said Cam Tatum. "We already know that, so he'll be happy to get down there and bang a little bit.''
One of the guys he'll be banging with is junior center Kenny Hall, who nonetheless sounded welcoming.
"We're inviting him with open arms,'' said Hall. "He's not competition because he's my teammate.
"Practice, that's another story.''
The Vols could have blown the new feel-good vibe from Stokes' announcement by losing to ETSU, a likely middle-of-the-pack Atlantic Sun Conference outfit.
And that's exactly what they appeared intent on doing for much of the evening.
Starting tentatively at both ends of the court, Tennessee fell in a 14-4 hole, trailed 33-29 at the half, scrambled to a 44-41 lead then lost it.
Adam Sollazzo's basket put the Bucs up 59-51 with 5:36 to play. The odds of UT suddenly solving ETSU's zone defense seemed poor.
In short, just like Martin's odds of winning Stokes away from the likes of Memphis, Kentucky and Florida, among others.
Tennessee, however, was a picture of resilience all week.
So Friday night, instead of tarnishing any vibes, Golden and Hall made pivotal plays at both ends of the court and the Vols found a way.
After closing the gap to 59-58, they had to survive a five-shot ETSU possession in order for Golden to feed Hall for a dunk that put Tennessee up for good, 60-59, with 1:59 to play.
"You've just got to keep fighting,'' said Tatum. "Remember a couple of weeks ago when we were losing these games?
"I said that these games will help us down the road. What we did wrong, we won't do it again. Guys are maturing and involving and getting better as a unit.''
Golden scored nine of his 11 points after the 59-51 dilemma. The Vols toed the free-throw stripe and went 9-of-9 in the second half. Last but certainly not least, they reversed a trend by holding the Bucs to 38.7-percent shooting the second half.
And then they went home for a two-day holiday break with a smile on their faces.
"Ugly as some of 'em may be, a win's a win,'' said McBee. "We're looking at getting better.
"Hopefully, the wins will get prettier and we'll start racking 'em up.''
That, of course, remains to be seen. UT fans would be wise not to expect a 17-year-old arrival who hasn't played competitively since the summer AAU circuit to turn the season on its ear.
"He's physically strong and he works hard,'' said Martin of the newest Vol. "It's what he picks up and how fast he picks it up.''
For the moment, it should be enough to enjoy the break. Two ugly but resilient wins and an unlikely recruiting score make it, as Golden said, a good Christmas to be a Vol.