KNOXVILLE - One freshman brought energy in an emergency start.
Another picked up some of the scoring slack despite some defensive struggles.
A third provided some offensive punch in addition to his trademark defense.
Needing a boost with its most consistent scorer and top rebounder missing, Tennessee got 33 points from freshmen Yemi Makanjuola, Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson in a 65-51 win against visiting Savannah State in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament in front of a boisterous crowd of 6,289 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night.
"I think we didn't wake up for this game," said Stokes, who scored a team-high 13 points for UT. "We have to bring it to the next game. It's hard when you're supposed to be an NCAA tournament coming into the NIT. I think we didn't wake up defensively for this game.
"We didn't maintain it. Guys didn't play with great energy."
The Vols (19-14) woke up enough after tipoff to jump out to a 22-5 lead after 10 minutes. UT made seven of its first 14 shots and assisted on their first six made baskets. Seven different players combined to score those first 22 points, while Savannah State (21-12) missed its first eight shots and made just two of its first 14 attempts from the field.
Then the Vols got sloppy, while the Tigers, regular-season champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, cranked up their energy.
"We hit a spell there, especially in the first half, when I thought we got a big lead and didn't move the ball as well as we needed to," UT first-year coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I think we were hunting shots, and I thought we did a good job in the second half of settling down and making the plays."
Savannah State trimmed a 17-point deficit down to 32-24 by halftime. After the Vols scored the first three points of the second half, the Tigers scored nine in a row. Preston Blackman's free throws with 14:31 remaining cut UT's lead to 35-33.
"I think we relaxed a little bit and got a little complacent," Richardson said. "We were up by a lot, and they still had the fire burning trying to come back, and they did."
Then Makanjuola energized his team and the crowd, and Richardson chipped in with some offense.
Starting in the place of the injured Jeronne Maymon, Makanjuola, the 6-foot-9 center from Nigeria, blocked a shot, grabbed the rebound and fired a long outlet pass that led to Trae Golden's transition layup. After blocking a shot on Savannah State's next possession, Makanjuola put back a Jordan McRae and was fouled.
"I thought Yemi played really well accepting that starting role," Martin said. "He really competed, defended, played extremely hard and rebounded the ball. He gathered himself when he got offensive rebounds and made plays and made his free throws.
"He's done a really good job of getting after it in practice and continuing to get better," Martin said. "He's not a guy that's saving energy and then getting ready for practice. He puts in the time, and that's the result of it."
Makanjuola finished with 10 points and eight rebounds and made six of seven foul shots.
"When I found out, 'Am I starting?' I got a little bit nervous," he said.
Richardson, normally a defensive stopper, also played a key role offensively in UT's decisive 12-2 run that pushed the lead back to double digits. He tipped in McRae's miss to start the run and kept it going with what Martin called his "patented" pull-up jumper in the lane.
"That's basically my shot," said the 6-6 wing from Oklahoma who had his highest scoring output since scoring 11 in the season's second game.
The Vols led 51-39 when UT's Skylar McBee tied up Blackman. Neither player would release the ball as whistles sounded, and as McBee emerged from the scrum with possession, Blackman appeared to throw a forearm in his direction. After the officials spent nearly five minutes reviewing the incident, no fouls were handed out.
"It was just one of those things where I don't know what the referee saw on the replay, but I didn't think nothing dirty went on," said McBee, who scored nine points on three 3-pointers. "I didn't really see anything. It was just two guys competing to get the ball. That's part of my job, to bring a toughness to our team.
"My brother's about 6-5, 280, so I've had a lot of practice with wrestling around with him. It comes in handy out on the basketball court."
After that sequence riled up the crowd, Savannah State's Rashad Hassan scored five straight points to cut UT's lead to 51-44 with more than four minutes left. Hassan gave Stokes plenty of trouble down low, as the 6-7 forward scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
After that, however, UT got enough stops defensively and made enough free throws to fend off any late drama. Despite holding the Tigers to 33 percent shooting, the Vols gave up 14 offensive rebounds. The smaller Tigers had just one less rebound that UT, which showed where the Vols missed Maymon.
The Vols' key forward missed the game with a bruised knee, which has been bothering him since UT's win at LSU two weeks ago.
"I'll have to talk to the trainer about his status moving forward," Martin said. "It's more day to day than anything right now. It's tough. You're talking about an all-league player, a guy that rebounds, a guy that really posts strong, a guy that helps facilitates the offense.
"You're talking about, really, a team leader. You can't lose a guy of that magnitude and think you're going to click on all cylinders out of the gates. There's some major adjustments, and some other guys have to step up."
As the top seed in it's fourth of the 32-team secondary tournament, UT is two home wins away from reaching the semifinals at New York City's Madison Square Garden. The Vols will host Middle Tennessee State, a 86-78 winner against Marshall on Tuesday night, in the second round. The time for that game has yet to be announced.
The Vols will need to be better against a Blue Raiders team that played SEC tournament champion Vanderbilt to the final minute last month in Nashville. For now, though, Martin will take the win.
"I just like W's because I'd rather gather and regroup after an ugly win," he said. "It's a win, and you keep moving."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...