Xavier sparred its way to a 25-21 lead over Tennessee at halftime Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. Despite shooting a miserable 30.6 percent, the visiting Musketeers were on top.
They were, in short, less dreadful offensively than their hosts.
Then the second half opened with more sparring, but Xavier was the aggressor. The team from Cincinnati looked up to find itself up 10 points with 15:34 to play.
All of a sudden a road win looked ripe for the taking. A crowd announced at 18,504 that braved a cold night restlessly sensed it, too.
And, of course, so did UT coach Cuonzo Martin. And he wasn't happy about it, not one bit.
"This was probably the first time all season we got out-toughed,'' Martin said later.
"You've got to care a little more. We looked like the road team.''
Martin's team clawed its way back to a 51-47 victory that keeps its record at home a spotless 6-0.
The high-schoolish final score, the 33 combined turnovers and barrage of missed shots probably didn't surprise Xavier coach Chris Mack. He had, after all, scouted the Vols and their methodology in the Martin Era.
Still, I'll bet Mack was caught off guard by some of the details as to how his 10-point lead and the promising possibility of a quality road win slipped away.
Don't round up the usual suspects.
Jarnell Stokes watched most of the second half from a seat next to Martin. Skylar McBee made only one of seven shots, setting the tone for Tennessee's 3-of-20 effort beyond the arc.
Point guard Trae Golden struggled through what might have been his worst game as a starter. He had four turnovers and zero points until the final 26 seconds, when he knocked down five of six free throws.
So here's the lineup that rode the rescue and saved the night:
Brandon Lopez, the walk-on from Austin-East High School, ran the point,
playing a career-high 13 minutes.
"He pushed the ball and gave us a lot of energy and toughness,'' said Martin.
Yemi Makanjuola tilted the battle Tennessee's way in the paint.
Xavier dominated the glass 44-28 and hustled up 17 offensive rebounds. But there were no second-chance points after Makanjuola went to war in the second half.
"When he's in there,'' said Martin, "all that action around the paint shuts down.''
"Yemi,'' said Lopez, "is one of the toughest kids, if not the toughest, I've ever played with.
"Defensively, he's always in the right place at the right time.''
Jordan McRae was out there, thriving in his sixth-man role, driving for a basket at a couple of junctures when his team desperately needed one.
And starter Josh Richardson, for the second game in a row, not only played lockdown defense but found enough energy left over to chip in a critical 12 points.
"Josh,'' said Martin, "looked like the defensive stopper I thought he could be.''
The wild card was Derek Reese, the freshman with the surgically repaired shoulder, who was activated Friday. His debut was no cameo, rather a 23-minute supporting role.
That's the five who reeled in Xavier's 10-point lead, drawing even at 33-33 on Richardson's fall-away jumper with 9:48 left.
Reese's second 3-pointer broke a 35-35 tie, Kenny Hall and Stokes returned to chip in a bucket here and there and the defense held Xavier at bay.
It was a unit light on recruiting stars but strong on Martin's toughness spectrum.
"I recruit guys who fit what I want to do,'' said Martin.
"We played the guys I felt would give us the best chance to win the ballgame.''
Scoring 51 points won't win a lot of ballgames, but you take your wins where and how you can get them and cherish every one.
Tennessee got this one thanks to an improbable lineup. It's a great cliché of all sports that the guy on the bench has to be ready when his number is called, even though he doesn't know when or even if it will be called.
This night, there were several Vols called. They were all ready.