January 29, 2013
Surging Stokes, inviting schedule lend optimism
Neither artistry nor aesthetics shows up in the box score.
Neither was often on display Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
None of that should matter for Tennessee, which did something it had not done this calendar year --- win back-to-back games when the Vols saw Vanderbilt's repeated opportunities to win a game at the buzzer it largely had no business being in position to pilfer. More over, Tennessee's 58-57 win --- its second-straight by a point --- marked the first time this century the Vols have won back-to-back games by a lone point.
"That's a good win," Martin said. "A big win for our guys."
So, then, it hardly can be considered coincidence that the Vols are winners of two in a row and their most decorated player, Jarnell Stokes, just pieced together the finest two-game stretch of his 36-game career.
Following up his 15-point, 18-rebound effort in the Vols' one-point Houdini act against Alabama, Stokes engineered his first back-to-back double-double --- and third in four games --- with 19 points and 11 boards, both game-high outputs.
Martin said he had sensed these types of breakthroughs --- Stokes has double-doubles in three of the Vols' past four games, all of them wins --- coming for the younger-than-advertised sophomore. Which was news to Stokes, who admitted he had battled confidence and pressure.
"I think a lot of things didn't go my way a couple of games. I had no idea it was coming," Stokes candidly admitted. "I started going to church more, started praying more and just stayed confident in my game. And it just happened that way.
"I feel like I do put a lot of pressure on myself. If I play bad, I just can't enjoy life. I just want to go out there and have fun. I think I play better when I just go out there and have fun. It's easy to say, but when the game's not going your way and a lot of things aren't going your way, it's hard to have fun. I feel like these last two games I've had fun."
The Vols, climbing within a game of .500 in league play for the first time this season, have an inviting enough schedule in a mediocre enough Southeastern Conference that more fun can be had. They visit Arkansas on Saturday, getting the extra two days' rest for the Hogs that 'Bama enjoyed last week upon its trip to Knoxville.
Beyond that, Tennessee gets Georgia and South Carolina before a return engagement at Vanderbilt and a home game against Kentucky on Feb. 16. The Vols don't have to visit Florida, which looks like a bona fide Final Four contender, at all this season and don't host the powerful Gators until the last week of February.
Momentum, then, like one of Stokes' 44 rebounds in his last four games, is unquestionably attainable.
"It gives us confidence," guard Josh Richardson, who had 10 boards and six points, said of the Vols' consecutive close wins, "but we also know that when we get big leads, or get leads at all --- we were up 10 in the second half and we definitely let them come back --- we've got to keep teams down more."
Still, it's encouraging that Tennessee won this game despite getting just 22 points combined from every starter not named Stokes. Jordan McRae, who is playing himself toward an All-SEC selection, had an off night, and the Vols still won.
Those are signs of a growing team. The SEC's lack of depth remains central to Tennessee's chances to turn around its season.
"Yeah, I definitely think we're starting to turn the corner," Stokes said. "I feel like a lot of games we gave up [losses that could have been wins], and we were close to giving one up these last two games. Thank God things were in our favor this time."
There are enough reasons, Stokes' improved play not the least of which, Tennessee could be thankful for even more as it moves forward.
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