Jeronne Maymon discusses the Vols' 68-61 win over Vanderbilt
A Who's Who of former Tennessee basketball players was part of a bonkers atmosphere Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Like the Kentucky game on steroids," is how Senior Day honoree Cameron Tatum described the scene of UT's 68-61 victory over Vanderbilt.
They came, 22,172 strong, to watch the culmination of a team's rise from the rebuilding ashes to an unthinkably high perch on the last day of the regular season.
When the clock hit zero Saturday, with Trae Golden dribbling out the final seconds until he locked into an embrace with an overjoyed Tatum, the Vols had a 10-6 SEC record attached to their name.
After December's struggles and January's 1-4 SEC start, how does 10-6 sound on the brink of March Madness?
"Sounds good," said first-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin, ever the master of understatement, resplendent in an orange blazer.
The old Vols, from Allan Houston to Mike Jackson to Steve Hamer to Billy Justus, had to appreciate the Vols' metamorphosis into what looks suspiciously like an NCAA tournament-worthy team.
They knew their alma mater had been picked to finish 11th in a preseason SEC media poll. C.J. Black, Isiah Victor, Brandon Wharton, they all no doubt grimaced at the December losses to Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston.
They weren't the only ones.
Jarnell Stokes knew of the preseason projections, too. Back in October, of course, he was still a high school student in Memphis. In December he was still a recruit, fresh on the market.
"I read the magazines," Stokes said Saturday after hitting the Commodores with 11 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. "I saw where Tennessee was
But when he came on recruiting visits to UT and four other schools, what he saw didn't jibe.
"The tempo at Tennessee was like no other as far as practice," Stokes said. "I just had a feeling they weren't no 11th."
So Stokes joined the Vols in January. He got "baptized" by Vanderbilt senior Festus Ezeli in Nashville, his fourth collegiate game, as Vandy dominated wire to wire in a 65-47 thumping,
It was a different Tennessee and a different Stokes that Vandy saw in the rematch — although they almost didn't see Stokes at all.
Early Friday night, less than 24 hours after his brilliant 18-point, 9-of-10 shooting night at LSU, Stokes went to bed sick. He stirred about 10 as a severe weather front moved through town.
It wasn't good. His fever was raging.
"I was shaking in bed," he said.
The training staff got him hydrated and by the time Stokes got to the locker room Saturday, there was no doubt he would play.
"He's a warrior," said Tatum.
And go to war he did, 28 minutes worth, time after time chipping in at both ends of the court to keep Vandy at bay.
"Just feeling wanted by your teammates and them saying 'we need you' gave me extra adrenaline to push through it," Stokes said.
They all pushed through it, the whole thing. From the dire preseason projections, from December's bleak results, from their ominous SEC start, they pushed all the way to a remarkable achievement.
As the cheers washed down Saturday, their day's work done, there was finally the time to embrace the moment, like Golden and Tatum did.
"It was a 28-game hug," Golden said. "It's been a long season."
And Stokes was right, what he sensed months earlier. They weren't no 11th.