Yemi Makanjuola’s nickname is “Yay,’’ and that was the reaction from teammates and fans during his startling performance Thursday night.
Makanjuola recorded his first career double-double in Tennessee’s 86-55 men’s basketball victory over The Citadel before an announced crowd of 16,245 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Vols’ first three-game winning streak of the season was accentuated by the roll Makanjuola got on in the second half, when he scored his career-high 18 points in succession.
“I didn’t even know what I was scoring,’’ said Makanjuola, UT’s 6-foot-9, 244-pound native of Nigeria. “My teammates just kept telling me ‘keep going, Yemi, keep going.’ Kenny (Hall) was telling me to get 10 rebounds.
“When I got the rebounds close to the basket, I figured I might as well shoot.’’
Makanjuola, who averaged only 9.7 minutes in the nine games he played prior to Thursday’s contest against the Bulldogs (2-10), pulled down 10 of his 11 rebounds in the second half. He played only 13 minutes, scoring his first points at the 10:49 mark when he put back a missed free throw.
Makanjuola’s rebounds, dunks, baskets and free throws continued to come, capped by his tip-in with 2:26 left, as he easily eclipsed his previous career-highs of six points and seven rebounds against Division II Chaminade on Nov. 23.
“I think the fans cheer because my name is funny, not because I’m good,’’ Makanjuola joked. “I just wanted to keep playing, because I did not want to come out, so I was trying to do everything I could to stay out there.’’
Makanjuola’s performance sent UT statisticians scrambling to find out when, if ever, a Vols basketball player had scored 18 points in succession.
UT coach Cuonzo Martin, whose team improved to 6-6, didn’t seem as interested in that trivia as he was in the development of Makanjuola, whom most considered a project when UT signed him out of the Word of God Academy in Raleigh, N.C.
“Yemi had a great game; outside of the points, he did a good job rebounding the basketball, really focusing on rebounding it with two hands and being aggressive,’’ Martin said. “He’s really improved his body balance and has spent a lot of time with the strength coach.’’
Citadel coach Chuck Driesell, whose team has dropped eight straight, said Makanjuola was a headache for whom the Bullldogs weren’t prepared.
“The guy coming off the bench killed us; we did not expect that,’’ said Driesell, son of Maryland coaching legend Charles “Lefty” Driesell. “We knew he was strong and big and could score around the rim, but we were hoping to keep him out of the paint.’’
UT guard Skylar McBee, who scored all 12 of his points in the first half by breaking up The Citadel’s zone with 4-of-5 shooting beyond the 3-point arc, said Makanjuola’s performance made everyone on the team happy.
“If you watched the bench tonight when he was doing all this, everybody was jumping up and excited for him,’’ McBee said. “It’s a big confidence booster for him, being a freshman coming in, I don’t think he was really sure that he knew what his role was, so seeing him have a game like this was very exciting.’’
The Vols took most of the drama out of the game by halftime, cruising to a 40-25 lead through the first 20 minutes.
Renaldo Woolridge and Trae Golden each scored 10 points, with Golden adding five rebounds and five assists to his stat line.
“The key for us was Trae getting off to a good start,’’ Martin said. “When Trae’s aggressive and assertive and taking the ball off the bounce, I think we’re a good team. He makes us go in that sense.
“I thought the guys did a good job, probably the best game I’ve seen our guys play all season on both ends of the floor for two halves.’’
Tennessee returns to action at 7 p.m. Monday at Thompson-Boling Arena against Chattanooga (5-8).
The Mocs will be the fourth and final Southern Conference team the Vols play in the regular season.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32