So much for easing Jarnell Stokes into college basketball on a gradual basis ...
Tennessee's heralded mid-term freshman made his collegiate debut against the No. 2 team in America (Kentucky) Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena and wound up playing nearly half the game (17 minutes). The 6-foot-8, 270-pound Memphis native made 4 of 5 shots, finishing with 9 points, 4 rebounds and an assist. He created such a buzz among Vol fans that the fact Tennessee lost 65-62 was almost incidental.
"He played a hell of a game," senior teammate Cameron Tatum said. "For a freshman coming out and giving us the spark we needed, I commend the kid. He wasn't too high and wasn't too low. He stayed even-keel during the ups and downs of the game, and I commend him tremendously for that."
Considering that he hadn't played in an actual game since AAU ball last July, Stokes showed tremendous potential and very little rust. He also showed surprising stamina for a guy who missed his senior season of high school ball after transferring from Central to Southwind last summer. He even showed poise ... no small feat considering he had to cope with a capacity crowd of 21,678, an elite opponent and national TV cameras.
"I felt good going into the game," he said. "A scared man is a dead man, so I really wasn't worried about all of that. It felt different with the atmosphere of the crowd, something I hadn't been used to the past few months."
Stokes watched nearly nine minutes before taking the floor following a media timeout with 11:18 left in the first half. He wasted no time making his presence felt, sinking an 8-foot half-hook at the 10:48 mark, exactly 30 seconds after entering the lineup.
"It definitely helped," he said of making his first collegiate field-goal attempt. "I felt pretty good once that shot went in."
Apparently so. He was called for a foul while battling for a rebound at the 9:57 mark, then swished a 15-footer that bumped Tennessee's lead to 21-15 with 9:12 remaining in the half.
Stokes' rugged style of play flustered Kentucky's Terrence Jones, who was called for throwing an elbow at 8:52. Stokes left to a hearty ovation at 8:28 but returned to action less than two minutes later. He immediately outmuscled a pair of Wildcats for a rebound that led to a Jeronne Maymon transition layup.
Stokes took a charge with 1:38 remaining in the half, nullifying a layup by Kentucky's Marquis Teague, then parlayed an offensive rebound into a putback with 1:30 left to give the Vols a 34-28 intermission lead. He finished his first half of collegiate hoops 3 for 3 from the field, with 6 points and 3 rebounds in just nine minutes of action.
Kentucky did a better job on the inside in the second half, limiting Stokes to one basket and one rebound after the break. Still, his debut was pretty impressive.
Noting that he was playing "for my team and the state of Tennessee," Stokes conceded that he had "a lot of adrenalin going through" and was "a little worried how I'd do coming out of high school." Now that those first-game jitters are out of the way, he expects to be more composed and efficient when the Vols visit Georgia on Wednesday evening.
"I plan to build off of that," he said. "I'll watch film — something I haven't been used to doing — and learn some defensive plays because I made a lot of defensive mistakes."
Because he joined the Vols 15 games into the season, Stokes represented a potential threat to team chemistry. He says his teammates have accepted him with open arms, however.
"They accepted me pretty well," he said. "Maymon and Cam and Trae Golden — all those guys — have given me nothing but love. Coming in out of high school, I feel like I needed that ... from the coaches also. I love Tennessee."
From the reaction of the capacity crowd, it's apparent Tennessee loves him, too.
All but lost in Stokes' debut was the fact the Big Orange and Big Blue provided a national ESPN audience with an exceptional basketball game.
A Stokes layup in transition gave Tennessee an eight-point lead (42-34) with 15:00 to play. Kentucky used an 18-8 run to ease ahead 52-50, taking its first lead since 28-25. It was 54-all with 6:58 minutes remaining but Tennessee suddenly went ice cold.
Stokes had a layup blocked by 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis, then Tatum and Golden missed back-to-back 3-point tries early in the shot clock. Turnovers by Tatum and Stokes were followed by a missed layup and a missed dunk by Kenny Hall. Kentucky outscored the Vols 8-0 during that six-minute drought to go up 62-54 with 53 seconds left.
Skylar McBee and Tatum hit consecutive 3-pointers that narrowed the gap to 62-60 but Darius Miller nailed two free throws with 20 seconds remaining to seal Kentucky's victory.
Tatum (16 points) and Maymon (15) were the big scorers for Tennessee, with Maymon (10) also leading the rebounders. Golden managed just 2 points but contributed 6 assists and just 2 turnovers for the Vols, who slip to 8-9 overall and 1-2 in SEC play.
Tennessee did a superior job shutting down Kentucky's perimeter scorers as Miller (1 for 4), Teague (3 for 8) and Doron Lamb (1 for 7) combined to make just 5 of 19 field goal tries. Point guard Teague also committed 5 turnovers against just 1 assist.
Tennessee's interior defense was not nearly as stingy. Davis scored 18 points for Kentucky (17-1, 3-0), while forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist added 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Tennessee led for 30 of the game's 40 minutes only to lose due to its finishing fade. Fatigue may have been a factor, since the Vols played a late game at Starkville on Thursday night, flew back to Knoxville in the wee hours of Friday morning, then played the Wildcats roughly 24 hours later. To his credit, Tennessee's head coach refused to use that as an excuse.
"You have to get out and play and perform. You can't make excuses," Cuonzo Martin said. "There were times we should've gotten offensive rebounds, times we got the ball knocked out of our hands when we should've made layups. We have to do a better job of finishing the game."