Tobias Harris was the last player out of the Tennessee locker room Saturday, emerging with a slight limp and a grimace.
Harris rolled his left ankle with just under 13 minutes left in the Vols’ 74-57 men’s basketball win over Ole Miss at Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford, Miss.
Other Tennessee (14-7, 4-2 SEC) players were bounding around with smiles, downright giddy after closing to within a half-game of first place in the SEC East Division.
But for Harris, the win was merely another step — albeit a painful one — in his march for a championship.
Harris is only 18 years old, but he has the look, playing style and disposition of a veteran.
He soldiered through a tough afternoon in Oxford. He pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds, dished out three assists and blocked two shots despite his 2-of-12 shooting performance.
“Those shots not falling, man, that’s tough,’’ Harris said. “But I didn’t let it affect me. I can still do other things on the floor for my team.
“Rebounding is what the team needed, especially when I couldn’t get it going on offense.’’
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said that type of team-first attitude is what makes Harris special.
“There isn’t a freshman in America who could be contributing more to us than Tobias is,’’ Pearl said. “He’s one of the leading rebounders in the SEC, and that speaks volumes to his toughness.’’
Pearl did not make the trip to Oxford, as he was serving the sixth game of his eight-game SEC suspension. Associate head coach Tony Jones has led the team on the bench for the past six SEC games.
A McDonald’s All-American who was rated the top power forward in the nation coming out of high school in Dix Hills, N.Y., Harris had his pick of national championship contenders.
He chose Tennessee after striking up a good relationship with Jones and Pearl.
Throughout the ongoing NCAA investigation, Harris has remained steady, stating that he came to win a national championship at Tennessee and insisting it can still happen this season.
Harris certainly is doing his part, leading the team with 7.71 rebounds per game while averaging 14.6 points. His six double-doubles are second in the SEC behind Mississippi State senior Kodi Augustus (7).
Pearl said it’s as much about Harris’ basketball IQ as it is about his 6-foot-8, 226-pound fame.
“He knows how to use his body to position himself, and he puts himself in the right place at the right time,’’ Pearl said. “He knows how to seal and post up.
“Tobias has attributes you can’t teach, and that’s knowing where to be and when to be there. He has great timing.’’
Harris returned to play the final minutes against the Rebels, wanting to ensure the win didn’t slip away.
“I just wanted to continue to rebound and make plays for the other guys,’’ Harris said. “Brian (Williams) played great and John Fields was real active, too.
“We won the game and that’s all that matters, and now it’s on to the next game.’’
Harris will continue to get treatment on his ankle, but he is not expected to miss the Vols’ game at Auburn on Thursday (TV: 9 p.m., ESPN2).
RPI Watch: The Vols are No. 16 in the national RPI ranking, according to RealTimeRpi.com, and UT has maintained the No. 1 strength of schedule.
The Vols’ game at Auburn (8-13, 1-6) could threaten UT’s ranking, as the Tigers’ RPI is 283 out of 345 teams.