Cuonzo Martin deemed it crunch time two weeks ago.
Tennessee's first-year coach handed out Nestle Crunch bars at the University Center to encourage students to attend games, and the fans delivered at the gate, leading the Vols to a top-five finish in average home attendance in men's college basketball for a seventh consecutive season.
"I was confident the fans would support this team if they played the game the way I expect it to be played,'' said Martin, whose team's average paid home attendance was 17,411. "I think our fans proved that this is a legitimate basketball school. It's a place where great players would want to play and attend school.
"This means so much to our program from a recruiting standpoint and to the players' psyche.''
The fans responded to Martin's candy bar campaign with 17,079 turning out for a Wednesday night men's basketball game against Ole Miss on Feb. 22, positioning the Vols to move ahead of Wisconsin, which was then ranked No. 5 in attendance.
The Vols delivered a 73-60 win over the Rebels before coming through in the crunch themselves, finishing with wins at South Carolina, at LSU and at home in the regular-season finale before a sold-out crowd of 22,172 against Vanderbilt.
No. 1-ranked Kentucky led the nation in average home attendance (23,721), followed by Syracuse (23,618), Louisville (21,503), North Carolina (20,159) and the Vols.
UT freshman Jarnell Stokes said the home crowd against the Commodores played a major role in the Vols' 68-61 win.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was forced to use timeouts each time UT went on a run with the crowd roaring its support,and the Commodores missed their first seven free-throw attempts in the game, finishing 8-of-16.
"If the crowd hadn't shown up like it did, I don't think they would have missed that many free throws,'' Stokes said after Saturday's game. "That was a huge advantage.
"I knew coming in here we always finish top five in attendance, and I plan on that moving up next year.''
The Vols were 14-3 in Thompson-Boling Arena this season.
Stokes Honor: Stokes was named the SEC's Player of the Week on Monday, and he could be named to the SEC All-Freshman team which will be announced today.
Martin said that the Stokes' performance against Vanderbilt was the freshman's best game of the season. He finished with 11 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
"I think it was a case of him getting a feel for everything,'' Martin said.
Stokes averaged 14.5 points on 76-percent shooting in wins over Vanderbilt and LSU. He also averaged 10.5 rebounds, three blocks and 1.5 steals.
"I think he's a double-double guy,'' Martin said, "even on a bad night.''
Hall Out For SEC: Martin said the suspension of junior center Kenny Hall will be extended through the SEC tournament only one day after telling the News Sentinel he was being "evaluated day-to-day."
Hall was suspended indefinitely on Feb. 15 and has not played in the past six games nor practiced with the team. Hall started the two games before his suspension and was averaging 6.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 20 minutes per contest.