Derek Reese's right shoulder isn't supposed to be healthy enough. A torn labrum brought surgical tools to the socket this summer.
Reese isn't supposed to be good enough. Most thought the freshman from Orlando, Fla., would redshirt his freshman season, healthy or not.
A tipped pass, though, led to a turn of events proving that the shoulder is indeed healthy enough and he's indeed good enough. When a 51-47, come-from-behind men's basketball victory over visiting Xavier was all over with at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday night, Reese was the hero in his debut.
"It's just like a fairytale," he said after helping the Vols improve to 8-3 with a date against rival Memphis (8-3) approaching Friday.
When Tennessee needed it, Reese was able to stretch that surgically repaired shoulder as far as it could go Saturday. Trailing 33-28, his fingers barely clipped an ill-advised cross-court pass by Xavier point guard Dee Davis. After corralling the ball, he charged up floor and drew a foul at the opposite rim.
Crashing to the ground, Reese came to rest against the basket support. "Let's go!" he wailed. Cheering teammates nearly spilled onto the floor.
The Vols needed a spark against the Musketeers (7-5) and got one. The team's stars — Jarnell Stokes and Trae Golden — and its seniors — Skylar McBee and
Kenny Hall — would finish a combined 5-for-19 from the field. The jump start had to come from somewhere.
Delivering on his message to get going, Reese canned a pair of 3-pointers in a 19-3 run he helped initiate. The first one cut Xavier's lead to 33-31. The next one fell with 8 minutes, 11 seconds left and gave UT its first lead since the 12:03 mark of the first half.
"It was nerve-racking, but then when the first one went in, I was so happy and so pumped," he said.
Reese's numbers — seven points on 2-for-8 shooting in 23 minutes — didn't make the game, but made all the difference.
As those seniors and those stars struggled, others stepped up, too. Josh Richardson scored 12, going 5-for-6 from the field. Jordan McRae scored eight points, including a key layup with 51.6 seconds left to give the Vols a three-point lead, 46-43.
A drawn charge by Makanjuola, his second of the half, preceded McRae's layup. It may have saved the game, as did his eight rebounds. Tennessee was dominated on the glass, 44-28.
"We went into halftime and I told the guys this was probably the first time all season I thought we got out-toughed," said UT coach Cuonzo Martin, who saw his team outrebounded 29-16 on its way to a 25-21 halftime deficit.
If Xavier was the Musketeers, the Tennessee defense was the Marauders. It looted a scrambling offensive attack for 19 turnovers, 18-of-55 shooting and held Xavier without a field goal for 10:16 in the second half.
While the UT defense provided its normal storyline, Reese delivered the feel-good sidebar.
He was cleared for full practices only earlier this week after spending the past four months rehabbing. During that time he was advised by Martin to keep a journal.
In it a recurring theme was "earn your respect"
"That's what I thought about before tonight — come out, do your best and at the end of hard work is greatness," Reese said. "Why go through all that and quit?"
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn