Cuonzo Martin on Trae Golden playing point guard
Trae Golden stepped to the free-throw line with 7.2 seconds left in the game and Tennessee up by two points.
The opposing coach, an intimidating figure, was glaring.
Golden calmly swished both and the Vols were off to the finals of last season's preseason NIT in Madison Square Garden.
The opposing coach, Cuonzo Martin, would say after Missouri State's 60-56 loss on Nov. 17, 2010 at Thompson-Boling Arena, that "it was one of those games that was a mental toughness type of game.''
A little over a year later, Martin has shown Golden another level of mental toughness, and the sophomore point guard has responded, finishing the season as the SEC's leading free-throw shooter at 85.6 percent (104 of 121).
Golden has made 31 of his past 32 free throws, and 17 in a row heading into the SEC tournament in New Orleans, where the Vols (18-13, 10-6 SEC) play on Friday (TV: WVLT, 7:30 p.m.) against the winner of Thursday's game between Ole Miss (18-12, 8-8) and Auburn (15-15, 5-11).
Golden's approach at the free-throw line remains the same now as his freshman campaign, when he finished 33 of 40 from the line (82.5 percent) despite the Missouri State game being his only start.
There's no pressure when the sophomore point guard goes to the line; only memories.
"I think back to shooting free throws with my dad growing up,'' Golden said. "Every night he'd get home at 5, and we'd be out in the driveway shooting until it got dark and my mom called us in.''
Robert Golden, a retired school administrator and principal, had just one rule for his son, who began shooting sessions with his father when he was 4 years old.
"He'd make me make 10 free throws in a row before we could leave,'' Golden disclosed in an interview after his clutch free throws sank Martin and Missouri State. "I was only 4 or 5
(years old), and I remember I used to cry when I couldn't make them.''
Golden's father laughed recalling the years he spent in the driveway and on the AAU travel circuit grooming his son to be a college basketball player.
"Yes, at that age he had to make 10 in a row before we would go inside,'' Robert Golden said. "We stepped it up to 20 and then 25, as Trae got older. I offered a few tips and strategies, but instinctively, Trae had grabbed the basics of how to shoot, how to get the ball to rotate, how to set his feet and the follow through.''
The instincts might have come from his mother, Carolyn, who before her teaching days played on a Division II national championship team at what's now the University of West Georgia.
Or maybe it was Golden's determination after losing pickup games to his big sister, Ryan, who was 8 years older. She turned down basketball scholarship offers en route to getting a degree from Georgia Tech.
Robert Golden remembers thinking his son might have a free-throw knack when Trae hit 22 of 26 as a seventh grader playing AAU for the Georgia Blue in downtown Atlanta.
Robert Golden was still helping coach his son then; the next season Trae was recruited to the elite Atlanta Celtics AAU club, which produced NBA stars Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.
Golden soared in the recruiting rankings, starring with the Celtics while earning first-team all-state honors at McEachern High School in the Atlanta suburb of Powder Springs.
The No. 55-ranked recruit in the nation by Rivals.com, Golden's first verbal commitment was to Ohio State.
But shortly before current Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft de-committed from the Vols, Golden decided not to attend his father's alma mater.
"Coach (Thad) Matta still had a scholarship there for Trae,'' Robert Golden said.
"But Trae wanted to reconsider. He had offers from Northwestern, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia and Florida and Louisville had talked to him.''
After Craft bailed on the Vols, the previous UT staff jumped on Golden. Former Vols coach Bruce Pearl offered him a scholarship over current Alabama point guard Trevor Releford, who had a visit scheduled the week after Golden picked UT.
There were times earlier this season when Golden's fan support wavered, but Martin wisely stuck with him and it has led to the Vols finishing second in the SEC.
Golden's current string of free-throw makes includes a 5-for-5 performance in last Wednesday's overtime win at LSU, and a clutch 4-for-4 effort at the line in the final 30 seconds to seal Saturday's win over Vanderbilt.
"It's tough to get beat,'' Martin said, "when you can make free throws down the stretch like we did.''
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32