Cuonzo Martin talks about a rout of Kentucky
It might surprise you to hear Jarnell Stokes' favorite moment of Tennessee's out-of-the-blue bashing of the Big Blue on Saturday.
It wasn't dunking on a fast break after swiping a Kentucky pass, although that happened.
It wasn't diving on the floor to recover a potential turnover and feeding Armani Moore for a crowd-rousing bucket, although that happened, too.
It wasn't overpowering a hapless Wildcat for an offensive rebound and scoring to put the Vols up by 37 points, although — incredibly — that happened too.
No, it was sitting on the bench. Really. Sitting.
Sitting there with "my guys" Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, he said, their day's work done, watching Tennessee subs put the finishing touches on a spectacular and unexpected 88-58 drubbing of No. 25 Kentucky.
"We were reflecting,'' Stokes said.
They were reflecting back over the struggles — most of them unanticipated — this Tennessee season has seen.
They were reflecting on what exactly this show of force, an absolute beatdown, means in the grand scheme of things.
What does it mean?
It was time for Tennessee to hold up its end of the rivalry after Kentucky had won nine of the past 10 games and six in a row. Mission accomplished.
It means coach Cuonzo Martin has a crowd-pleasing marquee win for his second season.
Last year, Martin's first UT squad twice upset top-15 Florida teams and also took down No. 13 Connecticut, the defending national champion.
This year's banner day had been beating No. 23 Wichita State in December. That's a fine win, but it doesn't resonate like hammering an SEC rival, especially Kentucky. Mission accomplished.
But the most meaningful interpretation would be that Saturday was proof this team is building — finally — for a stretch run just as it did a year ago.
Martin's first team started 2-5 in SEC play then won eight of its last nine regular-season games.
This team was 3-6 in SEC play just 10 days ago after a listless home loss to Georgia. Even the NIT bubble was suddenly slippery.
Then the Vols followed a win at South Carolina with a win at Vanderbilt. OK, they beat two bad teams, but there were encouraging signs.
Stokes has been on a belated rampage. In the two road wins, Golden emerged from a perplexing slump.
Golden was never better than Saturday when he scored 24 points, dished out eight assists and handled the ball flawlessly.
"The last three games this is the Tennessee team I'm accustomed to seeing,'' said Martin.
"When (Golden) plays the way we expect him to play, everything falls in line and it becomes a fun game.''
At last, Stokes, Golden and McRae, UT's key trio, are playing well together.
"Your best players have to be what they are,'' Martin said.
And to mount a late-season push, it helps if your complementary players are what they are too.
Skylar McBee's 3-point shooting is warming up. He was 3-for-3 against Kentucky. Kenny Hall, the other senior, showed up big Saturday, which is always a bonus.
So Saturday provided ample fodder for reflection.
"It means nothing if we go in the next game and shoot 20 percent from the 3-point line,'' said Stokes. "It means nothing if it doesn't carry over.''
Next up is LSU on Tuesday, the first of six remaining regular-season games, evenly divided between home and road.
Nobody in the SEC would have wanted to tangle with Tennessee on Saturday. At the least, it was a great day, the best day of the season so far.
But if it does carry over, it could become something so much bigger.