Trailing 15-2 seven minutes into Wednesday's game with Ole Miss at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee turned to its secret weapon.
Actually, Dwight Miller is a lot more of a secret than a weapon. He played just 11 mop-up minutes in Tennessee's previous eight games combined, producing 2 points and 2 rebounds. But, with Kenny Hall suspended and Jeronne Maymon needing a breather, the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Miller got a chance to redeem himself with 13:12 left in Wednesday's first half.
He succeeded. Miller put back an offensive rebound as the Vols closed to 15-8. Clearly energized, he added a 15-footer and a 3 from the key as Tennessee pulled within 15-13. Ultimately, those seven consecutive points sparked a 19-2 Vol explosion that turned the 2-15 deficit into a 21-17 lead and started the Vols on their way to a 73-60 victory.
"Dwight was a huge spark," Vol point guard Trae Golden said. "He came off the bench fearless, and that's what we need. We need him to be aggressive. He knocked down key shots for us."
Asked about hitting three consecutive Vol baskets during that key stretch, Miller smiled.
"I just wanted to go in there and be decisive," he said. "That's the approach that I took. When I made that first one, the other ones started falling for me."
Miller finished the first half with 7 points and 5 rebounds in nine minutes but he wasn't through yet. He shocked the crowd — along with head coach Cuonzo Martin — by launching a 3-pointer from the left corner midway through the second half. It swished through, capping a 20-8 surge that turned a 30-31 halftime deficit into a 50-39 Vol lead with 10:38 remaining.
"I knew I was going to make it," Miller said with a laugh. "I heard him (Martin) say 'No!' at the last second, so I tried to pull it back. I think that's one of those shots where, if you make it, Coach says it was a great shot. If you miss it, Coach is not happy with it."
The Vols weren't home free, however. Down by 14 points (56-42) with 8:30 left, the Rebels rallied valiantly. After trimming the deficit to 63-55, they had a chance to pull within six points when 6-foot-7 Murphy Holloway went up for a five-foot jumper with 3:29 remaining. Jordan McRae, a 6-foot-5 guard, blocked the shot, secured the loose ball and was fouled by the frustrated Holloway.
McRae hit both ends of a one-and-one at this point, and that four-point swing turned what could've been a 63-57 lead into a 65-55 lead. Ole Miss never got closer than 10 points again.
Asked about his crucial block, McRae shrugged and replied, "I pretty much knew he was going left. He'd been going left all night."
Although McRae's block was a huge play, it was overshadowed by a highlight-reel dunk he threw down with 11:20 to go that padded Tennessee's lead to 47-37 and brought the crowd to its feet.
"If it was up to me, I wouldn't dunk; it takes a lot of energy," he said matter of factly. "But it gets the team hyped and gets the crowd hyped."
It certainly got the crowd hyped this time. The fans went so wild, in fact, that Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy felt compelled to stop the action.
"Yeah, I heard it," McRae said. "I knew after that the coach would have to call a timeout, with the team being hyped and everybody being lifted off that dunk."
Maymon, who led the Vols with 18 points and 11 rebounds, said McRae's dunk deserves to make ESPN's nightly highlights package.
"I was very impressed," Maymon said. "I hope it makes SportsCenter, so I can get my name called, too: 'Assist from Jeronne Maymon.'"
McRae finished with 16 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in a spectacular 30-minute relief stint that prompted Martin to note: "Jordan set the tone for us and really got us into an offensive flow. He made plays and made shots."
Bouncing back from an awful outing last Saturday at Alabama, Golden chipped in 11 points and 5 assists with just 2 turnovers in 30 minutes at the point.
Each team made 25 of 56 shots (44.6 percent) but Tennessee posted a 40-28 backboard bulge against an Ole Miss team that ranks second among the 12 SEC teams in rebound margin at plus-4.5 per game. After committing 10 first-half turnovers, Tennessee committed just one after intermission.
The Vols improve to 15-13 overall and 7-6 in SEC play. Terrance Henry scored 15 points for Ole Miss, which falls to 15-12 and 5-8.
Ultimately, the big story in this game was the shocking play of Tennessee's secret weapon. No one could have expected 10 points and 7 rebounds from Dwight Miller. Even he seemed a little surprised after playing 16 quality minutes.
"It felt great to be out there, especially after not playing for a while," he said. "Doing well makes your testimony that much greater. You can tell people what happens when you work hard and stay positive."
Staying positive had to be difficult for a guy who had not left the bench in 10 of the previous 15 games.
"It's tough because mentally preparing for a game takes a lot out of you," Miller conceded. "You have to get really high in order to be ready to play. Then, when you don't play, it's kind of like you crash.
"But I understood I had to be mentally tough, especially without one of our teammates (Hall). Regardless of the crash, I had to think to myself: 'Be ready for your teammates, not just for you.'"
For a look at images of the Vol victory from InsideTennessee photographer Danny Parker, scroll down (click to enlarge):