KNOXVILLE - How many times have you heard it, regardless of the sport? Games aren't won on game day.
Games are won when no one's looking. When most aren't working. When only the strongest thrive.
So even though Tennessee officially beat Missouri 64-62 in Thompson-Boling Arena late Saturday afternoon -- even though it was a victory so important as to have UT coach Cuonzo Martin quickly declare of his Volunteers' NCAA tournament chances, "I think the job is done," after their 19th win of the season -- the real seeds for this victory were likely sown in morning's earliest light over the past month or so.
That's when junior point guard Trae Golden -- despite being mired in the worst shooting slump of his career -- kept arriving at the UT practice facility each morning by 7:30 to work with assistant coach Tracy Webster.
"Lots of shots, but also lots of rhythm work," Golden explained. "We put cones out. He'll shout 'over' or 'under' (meaning the defender has gone over or under the pick). If it's over, you drive or pass. If it's under, you shoot."
Golden has been known to shoot as many as 500 shots during these workouts. Sometimes Martin will, according to the junior point guard, "rebound my misses."
But with 3:56 to play against Missouri, Golden needed only to make one shot -- one like he'd shot thousands of times over the past month when no one much was watching -- to all but put the Tigers to bed.
"The defender went under the screen," Golden recalled. "Just like going under the cone. It was just like the drills with Coach Webster. I shot it in rhythm. It went in. Running back down the court, I looked over at him. Coach Webster had a smirk on his face, like, "Yeah, I know, the cone drill."
Golden's 3-pointer put Tennessee on top by five at 58-53. Mizzou never drew closer than three the remainder of the game until a meaningless 3-pointer fell through at the horn.
Despite his 12 huge points, four assists and only one turnover, Golden was far from the only great story in this game. Before it began in front of a raucous, sellout crowd of 21,767 on senior day, Martin brought his team orange hardhats bearing the Tennessee Power-T on the front.
"He was just trying to fire us up," said senior Skylar McBee, who also thought, "I might frame that hard hat one day."
Not that anyone but post player Jarnell Stokes was willing to wear his hard hat to the postgame news conference, where players wearing hats normally is forbidden.
"But Jarnell's also the only one who wears a headband," Golden said with a grin, mindful that Stokes' 13 points and 13 rebounds probably meant he earned the right to wear the hat of his choice. "He gets to do whatever he wants to do."
What this team most wanted was for senior Jeronne Maymon to shake off his knee problems and join Stokes in a frontcourt that might have been the toughest in the Southeastern Conference to defend.
Instead, Maymon eventually was forced to redshirt, Golden went through a horrid nine-game stretch from Dec. 29 to Jan. 29 in which he missed 42 of 59 field-goal attempts, turned the ball over 18 times while dishing out just 26 assists and fell into "a really bad funk" before missing two games completely with an injured hamstring.
But soon after that, the early-morning drills began. In the nine games since, Golden has averaged 16.6 points a game, handed out 40 assists, committed just 19 turnovers and led the Vols to eight victories.
How important is Golden? In UT's one loss in that span, he scored four points and missed nine of 10 shots at Georgia.
Yet even with that loss the Vols are now 19-11 overall, 11-7 in the SEC and stand fifth in the league heading into Thursday afternoon's league tourney opener in Nashville.
"When we beat Kentucky, I thought that was the biggest win I'd had here," Golden saidearly Saturday evening. "Then I was sure the Florida win was the biggest. Now this is definitely the biggest win."
Said Martin: "Trae got back to a star level."
And in college basketball the biggest stars always shine brightest come March, no matter how much unseen work they must put in to get there.