Jarnell Stokes on the Vols' 60-57 win against Connecticut
Skylar McBee on the Vols' 60-57 win against Connecticut
Cuonzo Martin on the Vols' 60-57 win against Connecticut
Jeronne Maymon on the Vols' 60-57 win against Connecticut
Coach Cuonzo Martin's decision to change Tennessee's starting lineup led to the Vols winning a close game for a change.
Tennessee pulled out a 60-57 victory against 13th-ranked and defending national champion Connecticut before a crowd of 21,114 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday afternoon.
Martin's decision to alter the Vols' lineup for just the second time this season came after UT (9-10) lost its previous three games by four points or less.
As was the case the last time Martin shook up the lineup — before a 67-56 victory against then-No. 13 Florida on Jan. 7 — UT responded to change with a home win against a ranked opponent, upsetting the Big East's Huskies (14-5).
Martin's insertion of mid-term freshman enrollee Jarnell Stokes into the starting lineup in place of Renaldo Woolridge paid immediate dividends Saturday. The 6-foot-8, 270-pound Stokes recorded his first career double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Stokes did it against projected NBA lottery draft pick Andre Drummond. Stokes, along with Jeronne Maymon, held the 6-10, 270-pound Drummond to six points on 3-of-8 shooting while fellow UConn big man Alex Oriakhi scored all of five points before fouling out with 5:51 remaining.
"I know those guys are ranked, but I don't believe in all that kind of hype,'' said Stokes, who played a season-high 29 minutes in his third appearance with UT since graduating early from Memphis Southwind High School in December. "I believe it's heart that puts you over the hump.''
Former Grainger High standout Skylar McBee exhibited just that in the clutch, drawing a foul off an inbounds pass with 21 seconds left and the game in the balance.
"If you're a real competitor, you want to go to the (free-throw) line in that situation,'' McBee said. "It's a situation you grow up dreaming of being in.''
McBee, an 84.3 percent career free-throw shooter, made two free throws with 19 seconds left to extend UT's lead to four points after the Huskies made a furious run during the final three minutes to cut a 10-point lead down to two.
The crowd was on edge when the mustached former walk-on went to the line; UT was in the midst of its worst free-throw shooting performance of the season, going 10-of-21 from the line including 5-of-8 in the final 33.9 seconds.
"That's why I had (McBee) in the game, because he can make free throws'' said Martin, who sported a white t-shirt in support of the 'We Back Pat' campaign for women's coach Pat Summitt. "You could see he didn't want to pass that ball; he wanted to step up and make free throws. That's what you want in a situation like that, a guy to step up and make the play, and he did that.''
UT's Kenny Hall split a pair of free throws with 9.7 seconds left to make it a five-point game before UConn's Shabazz Napier (18 points) hit a 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds left to cut the Vols' lead to 59-57.
Napier had a chance to tie the game moments later after Cameron Tatum (15 points) hit one of two free throws, but the UConn point guard's heave from mid-court failed to draw rim.
Jeremy Lamb did the bulk of the work for the Huskies, scoring a game-high 23 points.
It was the Vols' fourth straight win against defending national champions at home, dating back to a 68-61 win over Kentucky in 1999.
"(Martin) obviously has something going; their team was terrific,'' said legendary Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. "Their team stayed together, they ran their stuff and they were much more physical than we were in a game that was equally officiated.''
UT trailed 27-25 at the half before opening the final 20 minutes on a 9-0 run. Tatum sparked the go-ahead spurt with a 3-pointer and Maymon capped it with a dunk at the 16:24 mark that put the Vols up 34-27. The Huskies failed to regain the lead, but they closed to 34-33 with 12:08 left on a Lamb drive after UT went seven possessions without scoring.
Stokes broke the dry spell with a free throw at the 10:19 mark, and he followed with a jump shot to pad the lead to four.
The Vols had a nine-point advantage when Tatum hit a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 52-43 with 3:57 left, and a Trae Golden free throw pushed the lead to 53-43.
UT failed to score a field goal the remainder of the game and was in danger of collapsing before McBee's free throws helped settle things after Napier drained a 3-pointer to pull UConn within two with 21.9 seconds left.
The Huskies' 27-25 half-time advantage came after six lead changes and five ties in the opening 20 minutes.
The Vols took their largest lead of the opening half, 13-8, after Stokes drained a 10-footer at the 11:14 mark to cap a 6-0 run.
The Huskies responded with an 8-0 run of their own sparked by a pair of Lamb free throws and capped by a Lamb trey at the 8:33 mark that gave UConn a 16-13 advantage.
Tennessee returns to action at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Vanderbilt (TV: ESPNU). The Commodores (14-5, 4-1) lost 78-77 in overtime to No. 18 Mississippi State (16-4, 3-2) in Memorial Gym on Saturday night.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32