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Tennessee 76 Kansas 68: Out here hope remains

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Midway through the second half of today's game against #1 Kansas, the Vols put the following lineup on the floor:  Josh Bone, Skylar McBee, Steven Pearl, Renaldo Woolridge, and Kenny Hall.  Ten days ago, that group played a combined 20 minutes against Memphis, in a game that once qualified as the biggest win of the season.  Those 20 minutes belonged to McBee and Woolridge, who scored a combined 3 points against Tiger High.  Kenny Hall didn't play in the Memphis game, and Josh Bone and Steven Pearl had not played any minutes of any consequence all season.

After the Vols lost the guy who was supposed to be their best player and three other major contributors under an ugly set of circumstances, the team was set to rely on seniors Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince.  But the above five were on the floor because Chism and Prince had both picked up four fouls - Prince would ultimately foul out - and Bobby Maze (33 minutes) and Scotty Hopson (32 minutes) needed a breather.

So Bone, McBee, Pearl, Woolridge, and Hall played a combined 102 minutes today.  Steven Pearl grabbed three rebounds and took a charge.  Kenny Hall scored 4 points and grabbed 5 rebounds against manbeast Cole Aldrich (who had half of Kansas' total rebounds with 18).  Josh Bone, who had several Vol fans in the arena today questioning exaclty who he was and whether or not that was a made up name, hit a huge three when Kansas switched to a 2-3 zone, and had two assists and no turnovers.

Woolridge carried us early, knocking down three threes in rapid succession in the first half to let everyone in the building know that Kansas was in for a fight.  He finished with 14 points and 8 rebounds.  Ten days ago, he was averaging three points per game.  And McBee finished it late, making history for himself and the program in his very first season, putting the dagger in the Jayhawks with a shot clock expiration three in the final minute that put the Vols up six.  This is a shot that will be remembered for a very, very long time.

The "best" player and three others removed, the next four best players on the bench, against the number one team in college basketball.  And Tennessee got it done.

Pearl, Bone, and Hall got it done long enough for the starters to come back in.  Prince got it done on the defensive end - four huge steals - before fouling out.  Bobby Maze put the Vols back in front after Kansas rallied to tie it late, and finished with 16 points and 7 rebounds.  His most important numbers were an 8-2 assist/turnover ratio, when Sherron Collins went 5-4.

Wayne Chism hit the first shot to set the tone, and though his foul trouble limited him, he had 8 points in 19 minutes; Aldrich had 7 in 30.  And Scotty Hopson - whom Bruce Pearl called one of the best players he's ever coached in postgame - finally figured it out, at least for one day:  7 of 12 shooting for 17 points.  And one day was enough.

Everybody contributed.  Everybody.  And a team with every reason to lose stood toe to toe with the best college basketball had to offer...and won.

I forgot what it was like to be the underdog.

And it's funny how quickly it happened.  This is only Bruce Pearl's fifth season, but since the beginning of year three, the Vols have been frontrunners.  They played that way in victory in 2008, and acted like it a little even in defeat last season.  And when you rise so quickly and then you don't win them all, and your players seem to have a hint of swagger that was earned by the guys who came before them, it can get frustrating.

You forget the simple but frantic nature of cheering for the underdog in a game like today.  And as Bruce Pearl is fond of saying, we've still got weapons...but because of the opponent and the moment, no loss would've been more understandable in Pearl's tenure than the one that should've taken place today.

But there we were, Thompson-Boling loud for forty minutes again, and the Vols were in it.  I forgot what it was like to be part of a crowd and a game that lives and dies on every possession, to be in a building where you will shots to go in...and then they do.  The fans rallied behind the team, and the team rallied around each other...and somehow we got the right ending.  Today the Vols turned a bad story into a good one.

I don't know how long it will last.  I don't know if everyone will stay healthy.  I don't know if any of the three who remain suspended will return, nor do I know what that would do to the chemistry of these nine players.  And I do know that the SEC will bring a challenge to the table every night, twice a week for the next eight weeks.

But I have never seen a Tennessee Basketball team face a more challenging game than the won one we played today...and we won.  We won.  And we will face the next challenge with the knowledge and confidence, from Wayne Chism to Steven Pearl and everywhere in between, that there's nothing this team can't do.  The story of the season is always written in conference, and that would've been true regardless of the outcome today.  But the story that took a horribly wrong turn ten days ago found its way again today.  And now more than ever, we can't wait to see where it goes from here.

This may or may not be the biggest win in Tennessee Basketball history.

But I have never been more proud.