KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's basketball team found itself down 13 before most of the crowd of 17,079 at Thompson-Boling Arena had settled into their cushioned black seats on Wednesday night.
Jordan McRae and Dwight Miller made sure the bad start became a distant memory.
McRae scored 16 points and filled up his stat line, Miller added 10 unexpected points and both reserves provided some first-half energy in the Volunteers' 73-60 win against visiting Ole Miss.
"We needed [the energy] because we came out sluggish, lackadaisical and we just didn't have it," said UT forward Jeronne Maymon, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds. "I think our bench came in and got eight stops in a row, and they really got us back in that game."
The Vols (15-13, 7-6 SEC) had five players in double figures to remain tied for fourth in the SEC with LSU, which beat Georgia on Wednesday night. Trae Golden scored 11 points, Cameron Tatum added 10 and Jarnell Stokes had eight points and eight rebounds.
The Rebels (15-12, 5-7) made seven of their first eight shots and led 15-2 six minutes into the game. UT coach Cuonzo Martin said lengthy practices were part of the reason for the slow start.
"Also the focus level, understanding and carrying out assignments," the first-year coach continued. "That's our fault as far as our preparation and carrying over what we practiced."
Enter Miller, the 6-foot-8 transfer from Pittsburgh who had played just 12 minutes in 12 SEC games. He scored seven straight points on a putback, foul-line jumper and 3-pointer. McRae gave UT its first lead with a 3-point play 6:34 before halftime.
"It's one of the toughest things that I've had to go through in my life," Miller said of his low playing time, "because the only reason you play the game is because you love it. You don't want to sit out, especially when your team loses. You don't want to sit there and think to yourself, 'There's something I could do to help us win.'
"That's something extremely tough to deal with. The whole time I had to try and tell myself that things were going to get better. It sounds like a cliche, but if you just hang in there and you keep working hard, sometimes things happen for you."
With center Kenny Hall still indefinitely suspended, Miller, who said he has his goal of starting a Division I game written on the wall of his room, played 16 minutes and added seven rebounds.
"I always told Dwight to stay ready, to stay in the gym and keep working because I know how it is when you're not playing," Maymon said. "I just told him to keep his head up and keep plugging away. Dwight can score the ball."
So can McRae, though the wiry wing added six rebounds and four assists to his line. Martin credited the sophomore with setting the tone for UT offensively in the first half against Ole Miss' 2-3 zone, which forced UT into a 1-of-8 shooting start and four early turnovers.
"I would love for this to be a typical game for me, knowing I could do it every night," McRae said. "But I definitely want to try to attack the rim more. I was off on some shots, [and] one shot didn't touch rim. When you have nights like that, you've got to attack the rim."
Though the Rebels answered UT's 19-2 first-half run with a 9-0 spurt and led 31-30 at halftime, the Vols opened the second half on a 20-7 run, which included a thunderous one-handed slam from McRae in transition. Miller capped it with a 3-pointer that made it 50-39. After the Rebels pulled to within 60-53, UT scored 12 of the game's next 17 points to ice it.
The Rebels, who were led by Terrance Henry (15 points), Murphy Holloway (13), Nick Williams (11) and Jelan Kendrick (10), made just 37 percent of their shots after the hot start. The Vols outrebounded the SEC's No. 2 team in rebounding margin by 12.
"From where we started to where we are now," Martin said, "I think it's a credit to our guys. We weren't a very good team. It was tough to watch, but those guys stayed the course and they've gotten better."