Mike Strange: Jarnell Stokes saw something better than 11th place

Tennessee's Cameron Tatum, Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, left to right, celebrate after defeating Vanderbilt 68-61 at Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday, March 3, 2012.  (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Brimer, copyright © 2012

Tennessee's Cameron Tatum, Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, left to right, celebrate after defeating Vanderbilt 68-61 at Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday, March 3, 2012. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

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

picked 11th."

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.

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 » 14

BigVolFaninSC writes:

If CCM isn't coach of the year, then they need to quit giving out the award!

Excellent defense against a very talented and experienced team! Complete turn around from the game in Nashville! GBO!

VOLtage writes:

Come on Kentucky whoop up on the Gators tomorrow so we can get that fantastic 2nd place.

FWBVol writes:

I love the way Stokes plays and he continues to get better each game. I don't know if any team in the SEC has the pair of defensive ends, I mean post players that UT has in Stokes and Maymon that give us the bulk and strength in the paint.

The thing I like the most about Stokes though is his willingness to do what is best for the team. From day one he has been about helping his teammates win games. If there is an ounce of selfishness in him it sure doesn't show.

I'm also happy to see all the former players showing up and supporting the team. It's good to know that being a Vol For Life means something to those guys too.

tree_em_smokey writes:

Proud of these VOLS! Where are the preason nay-sayers at? Ya......... GBO!!!

tturley#297658 writes:

Great coaching has brought out the best in these guys-- especially FT shooting down the stretch, which won these last two games. Kudos to Coach CM and team! Way to go!

KevDVol writes:

One CEO moves his company from the bottom of the market to #2 in one year while another CEO helps keep his top rated company at #1 all year.

Which feat is more impressive?

If I add the fact that the top rated #1 company has historically always been rated at the top while the other company (#2) had just prior completed a year full of negative press and were forced to replace their disgraced CEO with an unproven CEO - which company's success would seem most unlikely?

It seems like the term "no brainer" should come into play at this point. Coach Martin is the SEC Coach of the Year.

Southland writes:

The SEC might not reward CM with an award but that doesnt stop UT from giving him a reward and acknowledging what he and his team accomplished. Maybe all of us that didnt know who he was and was afraid he was another dud hire like several others Hamilton made, can now applaud the good work he has done and hope for even greater things. I think the young recruits can sit up and take notice now. A gym with 22,000, a supportive fan base and a coach that teaches his players discipline and the game of basketball on both ends of the court

tnvol4ever writes:

Vol fans needed a good day. Saturday was a good day to be a vol fan. Hopefully today will be a good day too. Go lady Vols and go Cats. Never said go Cats before. Probably never again.

FanNotSheep writes:

Let's give Cameron Tatum and Trae Golden some credit here. They have had their struggles but they showed up huge in this winning streak and we would not be 10-6 without them. Give the players credit for the free throws too. That can't all be coaching. It takes nerves of steel to hit them with the game on the line. That's a big reason we are 10-6 too.

But the Vols have more work to do. They just can't do another one-and-done SEC Tournament. I don't think they will after they've worked so hard, but Ole Miss is a hot team and if you get past that one you probably have to beat Vandy again or Florida for a third time -- neither will be easy at all.

Got to have more wins to keep the dream alive. Go Vols!

stroker writes:

Where are the Hamilton Haters now?

UTByrd writes:

I read a lot of comments yesterday and very little was said about Skylar. Many people did not think he should be out on the floor. He put on a defensive clinic about how to contain the SEC's leading scorer. He was in Jennings grill all game long. I loved the comment from one of the announcers where he said Jennings had two people in his jersey. Funny but true. Also, another walk-on who exceeds expectations. Skylar gets my vote for "Mr. Hustle" award.

Go VOLS!!!!!

flatrock writes:

in response to stroker:

Where are the Hamilton Haters now?

Not a 'hater', but am clear that his record screams that he was in way over his head as A.D. His tenure is ear-marked by decisions that blew up a proud program in a way that only an NCAA death penalty could match. By all accounts, Hamilton is a good man and was a great fund-raiser, but his reign of terror as A.D. has set back the program by 5-7 years. Go Vols!

RickyVols writes:

in response to UTByrd:

I read a lot of comments yesterday and very little was said about Skylar. Many people did not think he should be out on the floor. He put on a defensive clinic about how to contain the SEC's leading scorer. He was in Jennings grill all game long. I loved the comment from one of the announcers where he said Jennings had two people in his jersey. Funny but true. Also, another walk-on who exceeds expectations. Skylar gets my vote for "Mr. Hustle" award.

Go VOLS!!!!!

Skylar's defense was superb. He may not get the headlines, but he deserves as much credit as anyone on the floor for the victory.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to RickyVols:

Skylar's defense was superb. He may not get the headlines, but he deserves as much credit as anyone on the floor for the victory.

Even though Jenkins eventually hit his average, he had to work really hard for everything he got, and probably took more shots than he usually needs to do that. I have always thought Skylar was a better defender than some give him credit for. He should be really outstanding next year. I expect him to be even better on defense and to add a little of the drive and mid-range game to his repertoire as well.

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