KNOXVILLE - Jarnell Stokes has confidence in his basketball abilities, but the Tennessee freshman is starting to surprise even himself.
Three games and hardly two weeks into his collegiate career, he's already invaded the starting lineup.
It's just what the Volunteers needed, too.
Stokes scored 16 points and 12 rebounds, and UT held 13th-ranked Connecticut to 36-percent shooting in 60-57 win against the defending national champion Huskies in front of a loud crowd of 21,114 at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday evening.
"All the hard work I put in paid off," said the 6-foot-8 Stokes, a five-star player from Memphis that enrolled this month and began practicing only 13 days ago. "No, simply no, I didn't think I'd be starting [so soon]. It's a surreal feeling for me to be here right now."
In two of his first three games, Stokes has more than held his own against Kentucky's Anthony Davis and UConn's Andre Drummond, two freshmen that in all likelihood will be among the top five picks in this summer's NBA draft. He played 29 minutes on Saturday and stepped up in the second half, when he scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
After the Vols (9-10) were sluggish in an ugly overtime midweek loss at Georgia, starting the talented and versatile Stokes had to be a simple decision for first-year coach Cuonzo Martin.
"Easy from the standpoint of what we needed because I don't want to take anything away from the other guys, what they've done and because they've been here," Martin said, "but easy from a standpoint [of] the guys embraced him and that helps make the transition easy.
"He's a likable guy. You want to see him be successful. It wasn't a big deal, it wasn't a shock to our guys. He's just what we needed in the starting lineup to get us going."
The Vols didn't score for more than six minutes after a 9-0 run to start the second half gave them a 34-27 lead. That's when Stokes went to work. He capped a stretch in which he scored six of UT's eight points with a tough running bank shot that gave his team a 42-37 lead.
"I see him every day in practice and we talk a lot, so I know what he's capable of," said UT forward Jeronne Maymon, who finished with eight points and seven rebounds. "He's a go-getter, so that's exactly what we need on this team."
Cameron Tatum's 3-pointer with 4:02 remaining put the Vols' lead to 52-43, but UT had to hold off a late rally by the Huskies (14-5), who lost for the fourth time in six games. Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier canned a pair of last-minute 3-pointers to trim UT's lead from 10 to two. Skylar McBee sank two free throws with 19 seconds left, and Tatum answered another Napier trey by splitting a pair of free throws with 2.7 seconds on the clock.
Lamb (23 points) and Napier (18) led UConn in scoring, but the backcourt duo combined to make just 14 of 35 shots. The Huskies' stout frontcourt duo wasn't much better. Drummond had just six points and nine rebounds, and Alex Oriakhi had five points and seven boards before fouling out in just 19 minutes.
"It's what we hang our hat on," Tatum said of UT's defense. "It's what we've been hanging our hats on the whole year. That's something that Coach Martin is always stressing, and guys have really bought in.
"Defense is a sense of pride. It's one-on-one matchups against your man and you not letting your man score. When you let your man score, you feel bad because you know you're a better defender. The way we've worked all year on the defensive end, if somebody scores on you, we take it a little bit harder than we used to."
UConn scored a season-low in points and made just six of 18 3-point attempts.
"Whether we hold them to 30 or 40 [percent], this is the way Tennessee will defend as long as I'm a part of this program," Martin said. "I think it's very important that we understand this is how you win big, if you can defend at a high level."
Tatum chipped in 15 points on four 3-pointers, and McBee added eight points. Point guard Trae Golden didn't make a field goal and made just two of his five free throws, but he handed out six assists and earned Martin's praise for his defense. Martin also praised his team's collective efforts in aiding Stokes' quick transition to big-time college basketball.
"For [Martin] to put his trust in a high schooler basically, that just shows what type of guy he is," Stokes said. "Previous teams, you would expect them to think, 'This guy coming in and taking my shine,' but it's not that way at all. All those guys, they help me out, they get on me. That just shows what type of guys they are."