After firing an air ball on his first 3-point attempt, Skylar McBee nailed five of the remaining eight tries in helping Tennessee pull away for an 85-62 victory before 14,751 fans.
Coming off the bench to play a career-high 30 minutes, the 6-foot-3 junior nailed a career-high five 3s and scored a career-high 15 points. He was a key figure as the Vols rallied from a four-point second-half deficit to win going away.
"Skylar's the man," said sophomore point guard Trae Golden, who led Tennessee with 17 points and a career-best 11 assists. "He can impact the game playing 15 minutes off the bench or playing 30 minutes off the bench. That's what's so great about Skylar.
"I think every team needs a Skylar, and we're lucky to have him."
McBee, a former walk-on from Rutledge, feels lucky to be had.
"We have so many offensive weapons on our team that it's an easy job for me," he said. "They (teammates) drive and the defense has to help, then they kick it (outside) and, hopefully, I'll do my job and knock down shots."
Although McBee's shooting eye was sharp, Tennessee's head coach thought the key to the young man's offensive output was his legs. By beating the defense downcourt, McBee routinely was able to unload before the Warhawks were in position to contest his shot.
"Skylar did a really good job of running in transition," Cuonzo Martin said. "He and Josh (Richardson) really sprinted in transition, allowing Trae (Golden) to find them and get easy baskets."
Golden and McBee were among five players who scored in double figures for the Vols, now 2-0. Senior Cameron Tatum added 13 points and Richardson, a true freshman, chipped in 11. Jeronne Maymon posted his second double/double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Fred Brown scored 18 to pace Louisiana-Monroe, now 0-3.
Tennessee raced to a 9-0 lead, then got sloppy. Turnovers and quick shots by the Vols enabled ULM to make a 16-6 spurt and ease ahead 16-15. The six Tennessee points during that span came on back-to-back 3-pointers by McBee, who hit another 3-ball to put the Big Orange back on top 18-16.
Louisiana-Monroe broke from a 33-33 halftime tie to go up 41-37 but McBee stopped the rally by draining another 3. Down 46-48 with 13:45 to play, the Vols finally put the pesky visitors away by going on a 26-7 run that produced a 72-55 lead with 5:34 left. One of the key buckets during the explosion was a 3 by McBee that extended the lead from 52-48 to 55-48.
Asked to explain his career-best scoring performance, McBee pointed to two factors:
"One is knowing my role," he said. "Two is Coach Martin having confidence in me, so I know when I have an open shot I'm able to take it."
He's taking them — and making them — at an impressive clip to date. Counting a 2-for-2 performance in Game 1, he is 7 of 11 from beyond the arc so far this season.
McBee played point and shooting guard as a sophomore last season but Martin said this week he wants the player focusing exclusively on the latter this season. Specializing seems to be working well.
"I've told Coach Martin I'm here to do whatever I need to do to help our team win," McBee said. "If he needs me to play the 1 (point guard), I'll play the 1. If he needs me to play the 5 (center), I'll play the 5."
Tennessee was a completely different team over the game's final 20 minutes. After shooting just 31.3 percent in the first half, the Vols shot 57.1 percent in the second. After committing 10 turnovers in the first half, they committed just one in the second. After scoring just 33 points in the first half, they scored 52 in the second.
An obvious key to the second-half rally was Golden. After committing three first-half turnovers, he found his rhythm — producing 8 assists and zero turnovers after intermission.
"I was depressed in the first half when I had three turnovers ... back to back, really," Golden said. "It was sad for me, but I really wanted to come out the second half, really get my teammates going and lead the team any way I could."