Nothing would've surprised you tonight. With the Vols down four bodies and potentially distracted, facing a Charlotte team more than capable of taking advantage, any outcome would've been understandable. But the one we got was perhaps the most surprising option: not only did the Vols inspire confidence and win comfortably, they got a chance to show some toughness in the face of adversity along the way.
The Vols led by 24 at one point and won by 17, but it was the span between those margins that may turn out to be of the greatest importance for this new look team.
The start was perfect. The Vols hit 8 of their first 9 shots and scored 20 points in the first five minutes. Charlotte hung around with an equally hot start, but then watched Tennessee pull away over the next fifteen minutes. We were looking for leadership on this team before it lost four players to suspension. In the first half tonight, we found it in Wayne Chism: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, 1 block. The Vols went to him inside on the first play of the game, and he stayed there for the most part, hitting only one three while getting to the line for eight free throws.
Even when the Vols played an ulcer-inducing lineup of Josh Bone, Skylar McBee, J.P. Prince, Renaldo Woolridge, and Kenny Hall, Charlotte couldn't mount any sort of serious threat. If the Vols can stay competitive with Bobby Maze, Scotty Hopson, and Wayne Chism on the bench, that's a very good sign.
The Vols were up 22 at halftime, but Charlotte went on a 21-5 run to open the second. The Vols couldn't score and couldn't get any stops, and the 49ers cut the lead to six in the blink of an eye. During a timeout, Bruce Pearl grabbed Hopson and Hall by the jersey and pulled them into the huddle, the biggest display of in-game passion I've seen yet from a coach that likes to paint his chest. The Vols were on the brink of giving it away, and with all the distractions and all the new faces, you had to wonder if they'd ever get it back.
Out of the timeout, the Vols responded.
Kenny Hall responded personally with a shot to put the Vols up eight. And then in a key segment moments later, the Charlotte bench erupted when the Vols appeared to be out of bounds right in front of them, but when no call was made, Skylar McBee hit a three on the other end. And when McBee added another less than a minute later, the lead was again safe.
Big threes from Woolridge and Hopson kept it safe - the Vols shot 8 of 23 from beyond the arc tonight, but made all the big ones - and proved they could handle adversity. While Chism added only two free throws to his first half total, Kenny Hall stepped up in the second half to finish with 12.
And from a team that just lost four players, you couldn't have asked for a more balanced effort:
- Wayne Chism: 18 pts, 5 rebs, 6 asts, 5 stls, 3 blks
- Scotty Hopson: 17 pts, 2 rebs, 3 asts
- Bobby Maze: 13 pts, 5 rebs, 3 asts, 2 stls
- Kenny Hall: 12 pts, 5 rebs
- J.P. Prince: 10 pts, 5 rebs, 6 asts
- Renaldo Woolridge: 10 pts, 7 rebs
Those numbers, combined with McBee's two huge threes, were enough for the Vols to build the lead, not let it slip completely away, and then pull away again in an 88-71 victory. These Vols proved they can win, and they showed real toughness along the way.
More answers are coming, on and off the court. It's possible UT could get some of the suspended players back, though all four this season seems incredibly unlikely. We're going to assume right now that it'll be the same nine man rotation that plays against #1 Kansas on Sunday, who is struggling at home with Cornell right now. But because they're #1 Kansas, a loss of any kind won't take too much away from this team.
With the win tonight, no matter what happens on Sunday or what happens in the investigation, the Vols will go into SEC play knowing they can still win with this group. They won't always shoot eight for nine at the start of the game, and they will continue to face adversity along the way. But as each win has become more and more important for this team, the Vols picked up a big one tonight, and hopefully set the stage for more big ones down the road.