Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes – listed as 6-feet-8 and 260 pounds each – combined for 32 points and 29 rebounds Saturday night against visiting South Carolina Upstate. Still, it took some late-game heroics by 6-foot-6, 185-pound Jordan McRae to nail down a 74-65 victory.
Though frustrated by an 0-for-4 shooting performance in the first half , McRae kept his composure, quit trying to force plays that weren't there and decided to let the game come to him. With seven minutes left it did.
With Tennessee clinging to a precarious 63-61 lead, McRae put the Vols on his scrawny shoulders, scoring nine of Tennessee's final 11 points to seal the deal. That was significant for a guy whose emotional nature used to doom him to a bad game every time he suffered a slow start. Clearly, he has matured as he embarks upon his senior season.
"He's definitely grown quite a bit," Maymon said. "I'm really proud of the growth he's made."
McRae led the Vols in points (18), assists (3) and steals (3). He was 9 of 11 from the foul line and committed just one turnover in 37 minutes. He was at his best at crunch time.
McRae began his big finish with a 3-pointer from the right wing that padded the lead to 66-61. After an Antonio Barton 18-footer bumped the margin to 68-61, Upstate answered with a three-point play. McRae promptly retaliated with a driving four-footer and, after an Upstate free throw, secured the final margin by hitting four clutch free throws in the final two minutes.
"I was so thankful for him, coming through in the clutch," Maymonn said of McRae. "I told him I appreciate him hitting all of those big shots and coming through down the stretch because the first half he was really struggling, couldn't get it going. The second half he really stepped up."
Stokes echoed that thought, adding; "We expect Jordan to hit shots for us. Jordan did a very good job of getting to the line and did a great job on defense. If anything, that's what won the game for us … Jordan's defense."
It's ironic to think of defense winning the game for Tennessee, which played zero defense in the first half. The Vols offered minimal resistance as the Spartans sank a sizzling 62.1 percent (18 of 29) of their field-goal tries en route to a 42-35 lead at the break.
Tennessee located its defensive intensity during halftime, limiting Upstate to 26.9 percent shooting (7 of 26) over the final 20 minutes. Apparently, not all of the conversations were amiable.
"At halftime guys held each other accountable," Stokes said. "Certain guys told me, ‘Come on, Jarnell, pick it up on defense.' They're telling me to pick it up! I'm telling them, ‘You make sure you're doing your job, too.'"
After trailing by as many as 13 points (36-23) in the first half, Tennessee pulled within one at 44-43 and 46-45 early in the second half. Upstate rallied to go up 57-48 with 12:33 remaining but the Vols closed the game with a dramatic 26-8 run.
A Barton 3-pointer gave the Vols a 61-59 lead, their first since 11-10. Two foul shots by Josh Richardson and two by Upstate moved the score to 63-61, setting the stage for McRae's late-game heroics.
Stokes, though 5 of 17 from the floor, produced 17 points and 18 rebounds. Maymon added 15 points and 11 boards. Barton, a senior transfer from Memphis, added 13 points and 1 assist in his first start at point guard for the Big Orange. The Vols won despite shooting an icy 35.1 percent from the field. They were good from 3-point range (38.5 percent) and the foul line (80.6 percent). They also won the backboards (40-31) and committed just five turnovers.
Torrey Craig scored 20 points to pace Upstate, which falls to 1-2 after playing its first three games at Virginia Tech, at Winthrop and at Tennessee. Knoxville native Ty Greene added 15 for the Spartans.
The Big Orange, now 1-1, returns to action Monday night, hosting The Citadel at 7 o'clock. The late rally against Upstate allowed the Vols to win their 22nd consecutive home opener and avoid the program's first 0-2 start since 1965.
After a tough loss on the road and a tough win at home, the Vols' head man was second-guessing himself a bit Saturday night.
"I must be a fool as a coach to play at Xavier the first game, then play our first home game against Upstate, a very talented team," Cuonzo Martin said. "I watched those guys on film and said, ‘What am I thinking?'"