Playing for the first time this season, freshman Derek Reese scored all seven of his points during a 17-4 explosion that turned a 21-31 second-half deficit into a 38-35 lead and spurred Tennessee to a 51-47 defeat of Xavier at Thompson-Boling Arena.
After missing the season's first 10 games while recuperating from shoulder surgery, Reese was the forgotten man of Tennessee's roster. When the Orlando native completed a projected six-month recovery in four, however, trainer Chad Newman pronounced him ready to play. That was all Tennessee's head coach needed to hear.
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Tennessee's fans were surprised that Reese hit two 3-pointers during the game-changing rally but Tennessee's head coach was not.
"Those were big shots," Martin said, "but those are shots he makes in practice."
Few high-major programs offered a scholarship but the Vol staff liked the fact Reese has the size to post up and the range to connect from behind the 3-point arc.
"That's what he does," Martin said. "You're talking about a guy who's 6-8 and can play the 2 (shooting guard), 3 (small forward) and 4 (power forward). He can make shots, he can stretch the defense. Once he gets his legs under him and gets a feel for it, now he's attacking off the bounce. It's hard to guard a guy like that."
Apparently. With Xavier leading 31-21 three minutes into the second half, Reese hit a free throw and a 3-pointer during a 12-2 spurt that tied the score at 33-all. After the teams swapped baskets, he nailed another 3 to give the Vols their first lead since 7-6 at 38-35.
Admitting it was "nerve-wracking" when his first four shots missed the mark, Reese kept his poise and kept launching.
"I just had all the confidence," he said. "I just knew my shot was finally going to go in. I was getting the first -game jitters out.... When it first went in, I was so excited, so happy, so pumped."
So was the crowd. With the Vols finally leading, it got so loud that Xavier coach Chris Mack called a timeout. As Reese headed for the bench he was bear-hugged by Nicodemus Christopher, the conditioning coach who was instrumental in Reese's ahead-of-schedule recovery.
Thinking he was headed for a redshirt this season, Reese wasn't expecting to play Saturday night. He certainly wasn't expecting to play 23 minutes. Asked how he felt finally getting to play, he smiled.
"I was everything," he said. "I was excited, I was nervous. I just couldn't wait to get out here. I really thought I was going to redshirt this year, so I want to give props to Nicodemus and Chad for helping me every day."
Josh Richardson led the Vols with 12 points. Yemi Makanjuola grabbed a team-high 8 rebounds in just nine relief minutes. Jordan McRae came off the bench to add 8 points and 3 blocked shots in 28 minutes. Trae Golden hit five of six free throws in the final 26 seconds to seal the win. Tennessee's defense did a masterful job on Xavier's top scorers – Semaj Christon (1 of 9 from the field, 6 turnovers), Dee Davis (7 points) and Justin Martin (6 points) – limiting the three Musketeers to a combined 21 points. Still, the key figure in this victory was Derek Reese.
Calling him "a difference-maker," Martin added that "With guys like Derek and Jeronne Maymon, you can facilitate your offense through those guys because Derek and Jeronne can make plays off the dribble, and then your offense kind of flows. If you don't have a guy that can do those things, it can become stagnant."
Tennessee's offense was incredibly stagnant for a half against the Musketeers' zone. The Vols went to the break shooting 36.0 percent (9 of 25) from the field, 8.3 percent (1 of 12) from 3 and 33.3 percent (2 of 6) from the foul line. Given that they also committed nine turnovers and lost the backboards 29-16, they were fortunate to trail by a mere 25-21 margin.
When Xavier scored the first six points of the second half to go up by 10, Martin replaced all of his starters except for Josh Richardson.
"The second unit fed off the energy of the crowd," the coach explained, adding that the first unit "didn't play as hard as they needed to play."
Reese, McRae, Makanjuola and walk-on Brandon Lopez were on the floor with Richardson when Tennessee launched its big comeback. On a night when first-team point guard Trae Golden went 0 for 5 from the field with 4 turnovers and only 1 assist, Lopez provided a spark with his energy off the bench.
"I really embrace my role," Lopez said. "I'm a real energy guy, I'm a leader. That's what I really try to focus on – pumping our guys up."
Xavier drops to 7-5. Tennessee, now 8-3, returns to action Friday, Jan. 4, hosting Memphis at 8 p.m.