Mike Strange: Bench saves the day for Vols

Mike Strange
Tennessee's Derek Reese, left, and Xavier's Joe Schuessler battle for a loose ball in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee defeated Xavier 51-47.

Photo by Chad Greene

Tennessee's Derek Reese, left, and Xavier's Joe Schuessler battle for a loose ball in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee defeated Xavier 51-47.

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.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 11

emailnodata (Inactive) writes:

One thing that puzzles me:

CCM is a heady guy. He loves defense. He had kids here already trained in Bruce's inbounds D.....
So, why didn't be build on that??

I think Coach Martin is a good coach. AS good as Bruce? Probably not. Still, the Vols could have done much, much worse.

One_in_West_Knox writes:

in response to emailnodata:

One thing that puzzles me:

CCM is a heady guy. He loves defense. He had kids here already trained in Bruce's inbounds D.....
So, why didn't be build on that??

I think Coach Martin is a good coach. AS good as Bruce? Probably not. Still, the Vols could have done much, much worse.

So CCM loves defense. Is it about time he loves offense?? And maybe the Vols can win 8 or more national championships.

BuckFama writes:

After reading your piece of the 28th concerning how watching basketball is better than watching football, I decided to see for myself. Watched last night's Vols -Xavier game. Sorry, Mr. Strange, I'm not seein' it.

NYvolFan writes:

I thought it was just a gutsy win, with excellent coaching from CCM.

tovolny writes:

This is what I noticed: 1) Too much standing around on offense. We constantly had three and sometimes four players standing in one spot watching just one player moving with the ball. I had just finished watching North Carolina play, and all five players were always moving when NC had the ball. 2) Jarnel Stokes looks a lot slower this year. He must have a new girlfriend feeding him cookies and candy. If I were as big as he, I'd get up every morning and whip my neighbor, John Adams as he was on his way to work. 3) Trae Golden can't play his game, because nobody, I mean nobody, ever breaks toward the basket for him to hit with a feed. I have never seen Golden finish a play from a give-and-go. Golden is one of the best guards in the SEC, but his team mates don't do their part to accommodate his talents. 4) Against the zone, UT never switches spots. What happened to players switching and rotating to set up favorable match ups? McBee doesn't properly step toward the basket on three-point shots. He should watch some video of Larry Bird shooting threes.

One of these days , Alice,...one of these days.

CoverOrange writes:

Agree with Tovolny, nobody crosses the lane in a zone. Noticed Golden at the top of the key fronted by three defenders at the foul line. Unless my math is off that means the rest of the field is 4 on 2. Somebody ought to be open. Same with Stokes. Gets the ball in the paint and 3 or 4 collapse on him, somebody is open.

Did the refs take a class over the summer redefining what a travel is? Went from 3 or 4 steps allowed to not even pivoting on a pivot foot.

richvol writes:

Right now Yemi Makanjuola is a better player than Stokes. You guys can flame me all you want but Yemi and Reese save our rear ends last night. In the next two years Yemi is all-SEC material. He absolutely took over the paint last night.

Stokes is sooo timid. If I was 6'8" and 270lbs there is no one on the planet that could stop me from bulling my way to the hole and cramming it into the basket. Until he gets it through his skull to play that way he will be just another unfulfilled talent.

1vavolfan writes:

Article does a pretty good job of summing up the win. Saw this game in person and a couple of thoughts I took away.

*Golden is hurt. He had a brace on his left shoulder and didn't take a shot in the 1st half. Martin guards injuries like government secrets so we may never know what is really happening.

*If Stokes stays in UT loses going away. He was a total liability on the defensive end. Yemi comes in and the Xavier rebounding edge goes away along with easy baskets and offensive rebounds.

*I like the fact that CCM doesn't mind benching starters. Stokes, Golden, and Hall weren't ready to play and down 10 in the 2nd half he didn't hesitate to take them out, a gutsy move.

*Still can't understand why McBee gets 25+ minutes of playing time. He has good energy and understands the offense but he needs to shoot 2-3 shots per game, not 8-10.

emailnodata (Inactive) writes:

in response to collegegrovebilly:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

T-Sky is there as much to make the pass as he is anything else. Just to be the glue.

John_10065 writes:

in response to richvol:

Right now Yemi Makanjuola is a better player than Stokes. You guys can flame me all you want but Yemi and Reese save our rear ends last night. In the next two years Yemi is all-SEC material. He absolutely took over the paint last night.

Stokes is sooo timid. If I was 6'8" and 270lbs there is no one on the planet that could stop me from bulling my way to the hole and cramming it into the basket. Until he gets it through his skull to play that way he will be just another unfulfilled talent.

Yemi played one of the best games I have ever seen him in off the bench. With the exception of that 4th foul that put him right back on the bench, it was an inspired performance.

He is definately fighting for and earning a chance to be a starter.

And I agree with you about Stokes, he needs to play his size.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to richvol:

Right now Yemi Makanjuola is a better player than Stokes. You guys can flame me all you want but Yemi and Reese save our rear ends last night. In the next two years Yemi is all-SEC material. He absolutely took over the paint last night.

Stokes is sooo timid. If I was 6'8" and 270lbs there is no one on the planet that could stop me from bulling my way to the hole and cramming it into the basket. Until he gets it through his skull to play that way he will be just another unfulfilled talent.

Agree completely that Yemi is vastly improved this year. If he improves as much in each of his next two years as he has this year over the last, he could indeed be the best big man in the SEC.

I get your meaning about Stokes looking "timid", but I don't think that is quite it. He is big and strong--so much so that if he puts a shoulder or hip into a defender, that guy is going DOWN, or at least sharply BACK, and he will get called for the offensive foul every time. For some reason, the Sullenger kid who played at Ohio State could do the same kind of thing and get away with it, but Stokes cannot. I agree that he could be more assertive on offense, but he needs to do it with a bit of finesse, too.

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