Tennessee had four chances to pick up a resume win in 2012. After three, the Vols had yet to crack 45 points or notch a win. But in front of a friendly crowd in Thompson-Boling Arena, with Cuonzo Martin honoring Ray Mears with the orange blazer, the Vols pulled through over the undefeated, #23 Wichita State Shockers 69-60.
The lack of frontcourt depth without Jeronne Maymon was obvious. Tennessee played much of the second half without Jarnell Stokes, who picked up four fouls early and eventually fouled out after scoring just six points. Kenny Hall missed significant time after an early hamstring cramp. And Yemi Makanjuola committed his customary four fouls, forcing the Vols to spend a lot of time in a small lineup.
And even when Stokes was in, Tennessee struggled inside, getting dominated by Carl Hall, who shot 90% from the floor and finished with 21 points and 9 rebounds. But the Vols answered. With their young big man bottled up, Tennessee got clutch performances from Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, with Makanjuola even getting in on the action. And when the game turned into a free throw battle late, the Volunteers--who had just eight made FTs in the last two games combined--did what no one expect them to do: they collected their points, and they won the game.
Early in the first half, Tennessee freed themselves from the poor shooting that had plagued them at Georgetown and Virginia, but they replaced the malady with turnovers, losing the ball eight times in the first ten minutes. However, tight defense kept the Vols in the game, and they actually led most of the half. Behind Makanjoula's six points and five rebounds, the Vols led 30-28 after a tough, physical 20 minutes.
But the referees, who had generally let the battles go in the first half--with the exception of calling technicals for celebratory screaming, much to the dismay of Wichita State--were whistle-happy in the second, which was a long march from free throw line to free throw line, and to the bench for several key players on both teams.
The Vols led 42-40 at the 13:12 mark when Jarnell Stokes headed to the bench with four fouls, but Wichita State took quick advantage, ripping off a 9-2 run to take their largest lead of the game. The Shockers threw everything at Tennessee, from full-court pressure to a 2-3 zone. They even forced two timeouts when Tennessee couldn't get the ball across mid-court. But Golden, McRae, and Makanjuola stepped up. Yemi delivered a basket, block, assist, and drawn charge in quick succession, and McRae (9) and Golden (5) combined for the Vols' next fourteen points to send Tennessee to a 58-52 lead.
But Wichita State was not finished. They ripped off a 7-0 run, capped off by a three-point play by Hall that sent Stokes to the bench for good with five fouls, to take a 59-58 lead at the under four timeout.
And then Tennessee made free throws. After the 58-58 mark, neither team made a basket. But the Vols played tight defense, and the Vols drew fouls. Golden, McRae, Hall, and Makanjuola went 11 of 14 from the line in the last four minutes, and a couple clutch rebounds by McRae kept the Shockers from getting the second shots that they'd relied on in the first half, winding down a 69-60 Tennessee victory.
All told, Golden led the Vols with 25 points and five assists, and McRae added 17. Makanjuola led the team with eight rebounds to go along with his nine points, and almost everybody helped the Vols shoot 29 of 36--over 80%--from the charity stripe to salt away the victory.
Tennessee takes the court again next Tuesday night against Presbyterian at 7 PM in Thompson-Boling Arena. We'll be here. Go Vols!