The key to that silence, appropriately enough, was Trae Golden.
Playing perhaps his finest game as a Vol, the junior point guard produced a noisy stat line – 25 points and 5 assists – in leading the Big Orange to a 69-60 upset of the NCAA's No. 23 team, previously unbeaten Wichita State.
Attacking the rim with a ferocity missing in earlier games, Golden hit 6 of 11 shots from the field and 13 of 16 free throws.
"Coach (Cuonzo) Martin told me to be aggressive, look to attack," Golden said, smugly adding: "I'm a 2 guard, right?"
The wisecrack referred to critics who say he is a natural shooting guard who should not be playing point guard.
Former Atlanta Celtics AAU teammate Jordan McRae showed some newfound aggressiveness, too, hitting 4 of 8 floor shots and 8 of 8 foul shots en route to 17 points.
"I definitely told myself that I have way too much athletic ability to sit around the 3-point line," McRae said. "I told myself I wasn't going to take the good (long-range) shots that I get and attack and try to get to the line."
Golden says settling for long-range shots is an easy trap to fall in to.
"You can always get jumper happy," he said. "I know me; if I hit one I'm going to come down feeling like I'm going to hit another one. That's human nature."
The Vols weren't "jumper happy" on this night, though. They attempted only 10 shots from 3-point range, instead relying on dribble-drives.
"We just made sure we got to the basket and made the ref make a call," Golden said. "That's one thing Coach Martin stressed – getting to the rack, putting a lot of pressure on the defense."
With Tennessee trailing 49-44 heading into the game's final 11 minutes, Golden and McRae accounted for 22 of Tennessee's last 25 points. Golden hit a layup, then McRae made four free throws and a 15-footer. After a three-point play by Golden, McRae drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to put the Vols on top 58-52 with 5:56 remaining.
Wichita State pulled ahead 59-58 but Golden hit five of six free throws in an 8-0 spurt that produced a 66-59 Vol lead with 1:16 to play. McRae added two foul shots and Golden another in the final minute to seal the victory.
|Vol guard Trae Golden contributed 25 points in 34 minutes.|
"I guess you could say that," McRae said with a laugh. "That's the Trae I'm used to – shooting 16 free throws and having 25 points in a game. That's a great game."
Asked about putting the team on his back down the stretch, Golden replied: "When we went down by a few points, I just wanted to make sure we won that game. We couldn't afford to go on a three-game losing streak. It was a huge win for us."
Tennessee won despite 17 turnovers, despite allowing 18 offensive rebounds and despite another weak showing from 3-point range. After going 3 of 16 versus Georgetown and 3 of 19 against Virginia, the Vols made a mere 2 of 10 beyond the arc against the Shockers.
"It'll eventually fall for us," Golden said. "Guys like Skylar (McBee) and Jordan and Josh (Richardson) can really knock down the outside shot. We just need to make sure we stay aggressive. I think that's the biggest thing for us."
Probably so. Aggresively attacking the rim Thursday night enabled Tennessee to shoot 47.5 percent from the field and get to the free-throw line 36 times, making 29.
Carl Hall, Wichita State's 6-foot-8 senior center, hit 9 of 10 shots and scored 21 points for the Shockers, now 9-1. With Vol all-star candidate Jarnell Stokes fouling out in just 18 minutes, backup Yemi Makanjuola starred off the bench, contributing 9 points and 8 rebounds in 20 quality relief minutes.
Tennessee, now 5-3, played with an urgency and energy suggesting this game meant a great deal.
"I told the guys it was a must-win before the game," Golden said. "I knew it was a must-win.... We have to protect our home court, and that's what we did."