KNOXVILLE -- The University of Tennessee men's basketball team had an extremely short bench Wednesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena, but they didn't need any seats late in the first half.
Players waved towels, bumped chests and exchanged high-fives like the second half was about to expire.
It was that kind of night for a team that desperately needed feel-good vibes.
UT, playing with just six scholarship players and three walk-ons, throttled Charlotte in the first half and withstood an early second-half rally before cementing an 88-71 win.
The 16th-ranked Vols were left shorthanded by the indefinite suspensions of four key contributors, as well as sophomore forward Emanuel Negedu's preseason health problems, but they looked nothing like a defeated, deflated bunch Wednesday. They used passion, poise and a touch of their typical pizzazz to somewhat comfortably handle a team that won at Louisville last month by 22 points.
"(Fans) did not know what to expect, and I didn't know what to expect," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "But when things don't go well sometimes, the people that have your back are your family. They're the ones that come to your aid first, and our Tennessee family is pulling together."
Senior forward Wayne Chism, who led the Vols with 18 points, six assists, five steals and five rebounds said Thompson-Boling hadn't been so loud since the time Chris Lofton's 3-pointer over Kevin Durant in the closing seconds gave UT an upset win over Texas in 2006.
"We appreciated the fans with all our heart," Chism said moments after the team walked into the stands to thank people for their attendance and support. "That was some diehard Tennessee fans right there. They come back after any incident and still come and support the team, through thick and thin. They brought it tonight. They were something else."
A Derrio Green 3-pointer gave Charlotte an early 10-9 lead, but the Vols quickly re-took the advantage and gradually built it before surging late in the first half. Maze scored the final four points before the break, giving UT a 51-29 lead.
The Vols forced a shot-clock violation to open the second half, and a Maze 3-point play extended their lead to 54-29.
But Charlotte, which nearly defeated Georgia Tech last weekend, was far from finished. The 49ers, with a hiccup-quick 21-2 run, whittling the deficit to 56-50 with 12:58 left.
Freshman forward Kenny Hall -- one of several Vols whose work load has suddenly and sharply increased -- responded with a jumper from just outside the paint, and the Vols steadied themselves. Charlotte got back within six points seconds later, but two 3s from freshman walk-on Skylar McBee another from sophomore wing Renaldo Woolridge pushed UT's advantage to 67-54 with 9:50 left. The 49ers never got back within single digits.
"Charlotte did not know what to expect from us, either," Pearl said. "It put them, in some respects, at a disadvantage. Obviously, you could see that at halftime, they were able to go in and make the adjustments that were necessary, and they disrupted. I was concerned with how we would handle success, or how we would handle a run that they would make ... and there was a period in the second half where we obviously contributed to their run.
"We lost our poise, but we got it back. I thought we had great leadership from our seniors."
All three seniors scored in double-figures, with point guard Bobby Maze and wing J.P. Prince collecting 13 and 10 -- along with a combined 10 rebounds, nine assists and four turnovers.
Senior point guard DiJuan Harris led Charlotte with 16 points, while Green and powerful forward Shamari Spears added 14 and 12. Green and Harris shot a combined 5-for-22, though, and the 49ers barely surpassed 35 percent as a team.
"We knew they were going to play with tremendous emotion," longtime Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz said. "Everybody was talking about who they did not have, but we tried to focus on who they did have ... and they were just ready to play.
"They were physically dominant in every phase of the game in the first half, and we just got too far down."
With no disrespect to Charlotte -- which might ultimately be an NCAA tournament team -- depth-deprived UT's schedule it about to get much tougher, starting with Sunday's home game against top-ranked, undefeated Kansas.
"How we handle success right now is very important," Pearl said. "We won't catch by anybody by surprise now, and so it's important that the players don't celebrate this much. Feel good about it, but with Kansas and the SEC staring us in the face, we know what challenges lie ahead."
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