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January 19, 2013It, simply put, was one of those days for Tennessee Saturday afternoon inside Thompson-Boling Arena. One of those much needed experiences in virtually all facets, the type of day that sees the new head football coach initiate mascot mayhem to delight a crowd of 17,584 that would file out a touch early in the Vols' 72-57 victory.
It had been 21 days, and a different year on the calendar, since hoops coach Cuonzo Martin's squad last won.
It had been never? since a Tennessee football coach interacted in such a fashion with venerable plush mascot Smokey. Not only did Jones and Smokey chest-bump on the arena hardwood, but they did so at Jones' behest. He got the human canine's attention, and Jones made sure Smokey knew to bring it.
That there were more than a dozen recruits in the house didn't hurt, and what the hardwood Vols accomplished should only buoy their efforts moving forward as well.
Tennessee placed four players in double-figuring scoring, and got double-digit rebounding efforts from sophomore post Jarnell Stokes and freshman wing Armani Moore, who both corralled 11 caroms.
"It was needed. It was a must-win, definitely. We didn't want to start 0-4 in league play. Being 1-3 just gives us a little bit of confidence to keep our head up going deeper into league play," said Josh Richardson, whose 16-point performance marked the finest outing of his career in SEC play. "Yeah, it felt good [to play loose and more effectively on offense. Before the tip we came out onto the court and huddled up. Me and Jordan were at home talking and were like in AAU ball, we used to just scream at people and hoop. So when we got on the court, I was like 'Why don't we just play like that tonight? Play loose and play like we were playing AAU ball.' So that's what we did."
Stokes added 18 points to lead all scorers while Jordan McRae, piecing together one of the finest seasons of any SEC player, added a dozen and Trae Golden perhaps took a major slump-busting step with 10 points and nine assists against just two turnovers in 26 minutes off the bench.
The Vols only trailed once, by a single point, and they led by at least 10 points, save for one 17-second stretch, during the game's final 13 minutes.
"Once you're able to get a win, now it's like, now you can breathe a little bit and let's move forward and play the way we're capable of playing," said Martin, who helped UT avoid its first 0-4 opening to SEC play in nearly two decades. "Because I still don't think we played great basketball. We were good enough to win. I don't think we played at the level we're capable of playing at."
To reach that level, Martin emphasized, the Vols will need many more efforts like those generated by both Stokes and Golden, who hadn't scored 10 or more points since a Dec. 21 win against Western Carolina. Moore entered the game with just 15 boards on the season, but he had eight at the break.
Stokes, after just a combined 10 points in 36 minutes of court time combined in the Vols' losses at Alabama and Kentucky, needed just 28 minutes for his fourth double-double this season.
Now, Tennessee must build. Martin said consistency is what an individual and a team show day in, day out, game in, game out. These Vols have a pair of instant-revenge opportunities this week at Ole Miss and here at the Boling Alley next Saturday.
As Moore would note, it's still a long season. Much is left for which to play.
"When we all play great as a team, I think we can be one of the best teams in the SEC," said the 6-foot-5 Moore. "Coach Martin always talks about everybody doing their part, so with everybody on the court doing their part we work together and click as a team and we can have a great outcome.
"It feels good to come back in the locker room. We're not celebrating that hard because it's a long season. But it felt good to get a great win."
Like maybe a most pit for Jones & Co. next weekend when the Vols host Alabama.