Skylar McBee is best known for hitting 3-pointers, but on Tuesday night the former walk-on from Grainger County showed another reason he’s in the starting lineup.
McBee epitomized the defensive fire that first-year Tennessee men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin emphasizes as the Vols’ equaled last season’s win total with a 65-51 win over Savannah State in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament before a rowdy crowd of 6,289 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
UT (19-14), which snapped a four-game NIT losing streak that dated back to 1992, plays host to Middle Tennessee State (26-6) in the second round of the NIT on a yet-to-be-determined date. The Blue Raiders beat Marshall (21-14) on Tuesday in Murfreesboro, 86-78.
“Anytime you’re playing in March, I think it’s special,” said McBee, a junior shooting guard who grew up a Vols fan and turned down scholarship offers to walk-on before earning a scholarship after his freshman season. “We’re in this to win, no matter what tournament it is and no matter what game it is.”
UT won its eighth straight home game despite playing without second-team All-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon, who missed his first start on account of a bruised knee suffered in the Vols’ 74-69 overtime win at LSU on Feb. 29.
“You’re talking about an all-league player, a guy who rebounds, a guy who posts really strong, a guy who helps facilitate the offense,” Martin said. “You’re talking about your team leader.”
Martin said Maymon, who averages 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds, will be evaluated day-to-day.
“You can’t lose a guy of that magnitude and think you’re going to click on all cylinders,” Martin said. “Some of the other guys had to step up.”
Jarnell Stokes led the team with 13 points, Trae Golden had 11, Josh Richardson had 10 and Yemi Makanjuola had 10 points and eight rebounds in his first career start.
Each of McBee’s three 3-pointers was greeted by a loud ovation, but the biggest crowd outburst came with 6:21 left and UT up 51-39 on the Tigers (21-12).
McBee got into a heated loose-ball scrum with Savannah State’s Preston Blackman and wound up tearing the ball away as the refs charged in to prevent further incident. The teams were sent to their benches as officials reviewed video before play resumed with no fouls called.
“I’m out there to battle; it’s part of my job to bring toughness to our team,” McBee said. “My brother is about 6-5 and 280 (pounds), so I’ve had a lot of practice wrestling around with him.”
UT jumped to a 10-0 lead and led wire-to-wire, but the game wasn’t without its anxious moments.
Maymon’s absence, combined with the suspension of center Kenny Hall, left the Vols thin on the front line.
The Tigers, led by Rashad Hassan’s 20 points and 14 rebounds, found soft spots in the paint and went on a 9-0 run to draw within 35-33 with 14:31 left to play.
The Vols, fired up by the crowd, responded with a 10-2 run to go back up by double digits. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season champs didn’t get closer than seven for the remainder of the game.
UT led by as many as 17 before taking a 32-24 lead into the half.
“We put ourselves in the hole ... we had to burn a lot of energy to get back to where we were,” Tigers coach Horace Broadnax said. “The crowd got into it ... made it kind of tough for us to hear and execute some of the things we needed to do. That is probably the little punch they needed to get them over the hump.”
The NIT quarterfinals take place March 20-21 before the final four teams advance to play in the semifinals and finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 27 and March 29.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32