After nailing a 12-foot baseline jumper that put Tennessee up 37-33 with just under 10 minutes left Saturday against Connecticut
, Jarnell Stokes flashed the kind of sheepish, child-like smile you'd expect from an 18-year-old who has been playing college basketball for just two weeks.
Unfortunately for the 13th-ranked Huskies, Stokes looked like a full-grown man in everything else he did at Thompson-Boling Arena in helping Tennessee post a stunning 70-67 upset.
Considering the circumstances, the 6-foot-8, 270-pound rookie's performance was downright mind-boggling. Consider:
He made his first college start in his third college game on three weeks of practice after sitting out his senior year of high school ball. Oh yeah ... and he was facing the defending national champs in front of 21,114 fans and a CBS national TV audience.
No pressure, right?
Showing remarkable poise, Stokes posted his first college double-double by leading Tennessee in points (16), rebounds (12) and blocked shots (2). Even he seemed a little surprised by his performance.
After conceding that "anyone would have butterflies" under the circumstances, he added: "It was a little more special for me, coming right out of high school and working out by yourself to being in front of 20,000. That definitely gave me more adrenalin."
That adrenalin was evident when he muscled home a putback as Tennessee scored the first nine points of the second half, turning a 25-27 intermission deficit into a 34-27 lead. The talented Huskies bounced back with a 6-0 spurt that trimmed to gap to 34-33, however, and appeared to be taking control.
Stokes stopped the momentum, though, by scoring six points in an 11-4 Vol rally that gave the home team a 45-37 lead with 7:07 left. Tennessee eventually widened the gap to 10 points (53-43) on a Trae Golden free throw with 3:15 remaining.
Of course, there's a reason UConn brought a 14-4 record into the game: The Huskies are great in the clutch. And there's a reason Tennessee brought an 8-10 record into the game: The Vols are shaky in the clutch.
In about the time it takes to say, "Uh-oh, here we go again," Tennessee saw its bulge trimmed to 53-48. With the Vols seemingly headed for another finishing fade and another heartbreaking loss, Jarnell Stokes stepped to the foul line with 56.4 seconds left and the weight of the Vol Nation on his shoulders.
That level of pressure would be difficult for a fifth-year senior. For a mid-term freshman one month removed from his high school graduation, the pressure had to be stifling. To cope, he channeled someone else ... NBA star Carmelo Anthony.
"You're probably going to laugh," Stokes said, "but I just think Carmelo. I know he always hits his free throws. If you see how I do my (pre-free throw) dribble, I do it like Carmelo. That way I can get my mind off of the real situation."
Whether it's due to youthful exuberance or nervous energy, Stokes tends to play exceptionally well at the start of games. He made three of Tennessee's 11 first-half baskets Saturday and went to the break with 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks. The good start helped settle his nerves and boost his confidence.
"It definitely grew," he said. "I'm getting more adjusted to the college game and getting in better shape, game by game."
UConn's front line was taller than what he faced as a high school and AAU standout but Stokes quickly discovered that when a 270-pound body and a 230-pound body collide, the 270-pound body prevails.
"I definitely struggled with taller defenders in my past," he said. "But watching and learning a lot of technique that you don't learn in high school is pushing me through."
Naturally, Tennessee teammates are thrilled to see Stokes progressing so rapidly.
"He played great. He played an all-around game — scoring inside/out, rebounding, getting man rebounds, being physical," said senior wing Cameron Tatum, who chipped in 15 points for the Vols. "We've just got to get him to come on a little bit on the defensive end."
Stokes conceded the point, noting: "I was actually a horrible defender in high school but somehow Coach (Cuonzo) Martin worked it up."
After estimating that Martin devotes "95 percent of practice" to defense, Stokes noted that he is making steady progress in that area. Teammates have noticed.
"He's young, and he'll get there," Tatum said. "He's a quick learner and he's very receptive to learning. I'm ecstatic about what he's bringing to the table."
Other Vols feel the same way about Stokes.
"He's a presence inside," said junior guard Skylar McBee, who hit two clutch free throws that bumped the lead to 58-54 with 19 seconds left. "When a guy drives by, you know he's there to help. He does a great job scoring and rebounding. And something that's overlooked ... he's a great passer. He does a great job finding guys out of that double-team. He's doing a tremendous job."
The dynamic backcourt duo of Jeremy Lamb (23) and Shabazz Napier (18) combined to produce 41 points for UConn, now 14-5. Still, they were upstaged by a massive Vol freshman.
After debuting with a 9-point, 4-rebound effort against Kentucky last Saturday and an 11-point, 8-rebound performance at Georgia on Wednesday night, Stokes found out on Thursday that he would be starting versus UConn. Naturally, the jump from being ineligible as a senior at Memphis Southwind High School to starting as a freshman at Tennessee is almost more than he can comprehend.
"I think of where I was three months ago and where I am now," he said, "and it's surreal just to be standing here right now."
To see video produced by InsideTennessee of Stokes talking after the upset, click play below:
To see a gallery from InsideTennessee photographer Danny Parker, see below: