Wiedmer: UT doing what's needed

Wiedmer: UT doing what's needed

March 4th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE - At 1 o'clock Saturday morning, Tennessee freshman forward Jarnell Stokes was running a fever of 106 and dangerously close to dehydration.

"I was up until 3 in the morning getting fluids," he said. "I didn't think I was going to play."

Nearly 12 hours later, as he entered the UT locker room a little more than 60 minutes from the start of the Volunteers' regular-season finale against Vanderbilt, Stokes felt no better. He felt awful. He decided he might have to sit this one out against the Commodores.

"What do you mean you can't play?" sophomore point guard Trae Golden asked incredulously. "Get some rest and be ready. We've already lost Kenny Hall [to suspension]. You have to play."

As Golden retold the story he smiled, knowing Stokes had played well enough to artfully score 11 points and manfully pull down 14 rebounds in a 68-61 victory that guarantees UT a bye in this week's SEC tournament in New Orleans.

And should No. 1 Kentucky defeat Florida today in Gainesville, the Vols will be the tourney's No. 2 seed.

But what if Stokes hadn't played? What would Golden have done then?

"Oh, I think Jeronne [Maymon] and I would have beat him up," Golden said with a grin. "There was no way we weren't going to make him play."

Instead, Maymon and Stokes beat up the Commodores on the inside from the outset, eventually outrebounding them 40-30. Stokes' and Maymon's 21 total rebounds were two more than the entire Vandy front line of Lance Goulbourne, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli.

And that was more than enough to make VU coach Kevin Stallings almost as sick as Stokes.

"They played inspired and we didn't, really," he said. "That's just the bottom line. I think the story of the game is that they were just physically tougher than we were at every spot. You can't win if you get out-physicaled at every spot."

It had been just the opposite at Vanderbilt. The Commodores had won 65-47, forcing 25 Big Orange turnovers.

Despite scoring six points and pulling down a game-high 10 rebounds that night, Stokes was especially frustrated, saying of his game-high seven turnovers, "That was the first time I actually had some trouble with my game."

But Maymon never worried, even as the Vols fell to 9-11 overall and 1-4 in league play following that Vandy defeat.

"I knew we'd be close to the top at the end of the year," he said. "Lots of programs don't get better every day, but we do."

Especially now that the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Maymon and 6-8, 270-pound Stokes are on the floor together as often as possible.

The Vols have won nine of their last 11 games and eight of their last nine.

Said Vanderbilt's Lance Goulbourne: "The [UT] big guys are very physical. They're very tough, especially Maymon and Stokes. They're around the rim a lot and it's hard to move them."

And with Stokes and Maymon doing the dirty work inside while guards Golden (17 points/4 assists) and Cameron Tatum (18 points) stretch the defense on the perimeter, Tennessee not only has moved up in the SEC standings but moved onto the NCAA tournament bubble.

"They're not there yet," ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said. "But I would think if they got to the final of the SEC tournament they'd have a good chance."

That chance will begin Friday in New Orleans against an opponent yet to be determined.

But UT coach Cuonzo Martin already is certain that his surging team belongs in the Big Dance.

"I told our guys that [Vanderbilt] can be a Final Four team," he said.

If that's so, what does that say about how far can these Vols go?