KNOXVILLE — They were all officially here to watch their Tennessee men's basketball team defeat Alabama, which the Volunteers did by the hair on senior guard Skylar McBee's chinny-chin-chin, winning 54-53.
But the 18,791 raising the roof of the Vols' Thompson-Boling Arena throughout much of this much-needed Big Orange win had a second reason for delivering what UT coach Cuonzo Martin later labeled "a tremendous crowd."
Or maybe it was the first reason, for Saturday afternoon was tremendously important for arguably the biggest football recruiting weekend before national signing day on Feb. 6.
Especially with Ridgeland High School's Vonn Bell -- who reportedly is deciding between UT and Alabama -- in the house for his official visit.
"Getting Bell would be HUGE!" UT student and Red Bank High graduate Zach Graupmann exclaimed a few minutes before tipoff of the Vonn Bell Derby.
Added Cleveland High grad Zach Barringer: "We really need Bell."
What Bell thought of all this is uncertain. Recruits are off limits to the media, and presumably no one saw him openly cheering for either the Vols or the Crimson Tide, despite his childhood affection for the Big Orange.
But there's little doubt that both the UT fans and basketball coaching staff knew this game was potentially worth far more than the Vols improving to 2-4 in the Southeastern Conference and 10-8 overall.
"Very aware," Martin said when asked how much he knew about the importance of this weekend for new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones.
"My job is to put on a show, just like football does when we're bringing in recruits in the fall. We're all in the same family, and we had a great, great atmosphere out there today."
It was a great atmosphere, especially for a team that would appear to have little chance at reaching the NCAA tournament, despite this gritty, determined win.
For one of the few times this season, sophomore post Jarnell Stokes displayed more than a few flashes of the All-SEC performer he was expected to be, finishing with 18 rebounds, 15 points and two steals.
Jordan McRae again showed why he's one of the most dangerous scorers in the SEC, scoring 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half.
But as much as every UT fan loves any win over Bama in any sport from archery to zip-lining, the crowd did seem awfully focused on wooing Bell to a football program that needs all the talent it can sign if it ever again expects to beat the Tide.
First, the loudest cheers of the first half were reserved for Jones and his assistants when they headed to their seats in Section 126 with 11:16 to go.
Then one coed competing in a recycling contest at halftime exclaimed, "A shout-out to Vonn Bell!"
Finally, with 5:23 to go, the student body stood, faced Bell and the other recruits and cheered wildly, at least a few of them chanting, "We want Vonn! We want Vonn!"
And right then, as if Bell would make his decision based solely on the winner of this game, the Vols rallied, charging from a four-point hole to win late.
Alas, not all was perfect in Big Orange Nation. Four-hundred-thirty-five miles away, in Richmond, Va., top-100 running back Derrick Green announced he would sign with Michigan over Tennessee and Auburn.
But neither the UT fans nor players appeared overly distraught over that as long as for whom Bell will toil remains uncertain.
Said Vols point guard Trae Golden of Ridgeland's finest: "Maybe we helped Butch Jones a little bit, huh?"
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...