Trailing at half for the second time in two games and on the verge of starting the season 0-2, tensions flared in the Vols’ locker room Saturday night.
According to Jarnell Stokes, it made the difference in the game.
Tennessee trailed USC Upstate for a 26-minute stretch, only to outscore the Trojans by 16 in the second half as the Vols pulled out a 74-65 victory in their home opener in Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday night.
“At halftime, you know, guys held each other accountable,” Stokes said. “Certain guys may have told me ‘come on, Jarnell, pick it up on defense.’ So they’re telling me to pick it up, I’m telling them ‘you better make sure you do your job, too.’
“And because of that, we were able to push each other. No one took it personal. That's why you saw a different team in the second half.”
Stokes only shot 5-for-17 from the field, but scored 17 points and pulled down 18 rebounds. He collected an uncharacteristic four rebounds in Tuesday’s season opener at Xavier, only to match that in a 41-second span Saturday night.
The Vols shot just 35 percent (20-of-57) on the night to USC Upstate’s 45 (25-of-55), but Martin thought his players rose up when the moment came calling for it.
“We didn’t shoot well,” Martin said, “but we made shots when we had to make them and made plays when we had to make them.”
The Vols have sputtered to slow starts through each of their first two games. They trailed Xavier by double digits multiple times in the first half on Tuesday, only to see USC Upstate lead by as many as 13 late in the opening period on Saturday night.
The Trojans, who upset Virginia Tech to open the season, admittedly caught Martin off guard.
“I must be a fool as a coach to play Xavier first game and then first home game against Upstate,” Martin said. “Talented team, very talented. I watched those guys on film and thought, ‘what am I thinking?’”
UT trimmed the deficit to five just before half, but couldn’t slow down the Atlantic-Sun squad’s half-court set en route to 42 first-half points on 62 percent shooting.
Then, the Vols clamped down on Martin’s favorite side of the ball as USC Upstate shot just 7-for-26 (26 percent) in the final period.
“Just taking pride in defending,” Martin said in attribution to the second-half turnaround. “Our guys understood that this was a ball game.”
Antonio Barton also understood the importance of the moment. The senior Memphis transfer started his first game, playing 31 minutes and amassing 13 points.
Two Barton field goals—a 3-pointer to give the Vols the lead for good, and a step-back jumper to extend the lead to seven just three minutes later—played a huge part in deciding the Vols’ fate.
“That’s Antonio’s game,” Stokes said of the clutch shots. “He wants the big shot. He’s a tough, tough player, and he’s not afraid to take the shot. I feel like Antonio really helps us in that end.”
Martin rode his starters down that crucial stretch. Each logged 28 or more minutes on the court Saturday. Only one bench player—true freshman Robert Hubbs III—played double-digit minutes.
“I think for us, our veteran guys had to bring us home,” Martin said. “Any other way, I don’t think we would’ve gotten that W tonight.”
Stokes and Maymon playing 36 and 31 minutes, respectively, also stood out on the final box score.
“That is a lot of minutes for those guys,” Martin said, “but we had to ride on those guys down the stretch.”
It paid off. For the first time ever, both burly frontcourt stars secured double-doubles in the same game.
Maymon finished with 15 points and 11 boards, and the duo combined for 11 offensive rebounds—three more than the Trojans collected as team.
The Vols will face a quick turnaround, playing The Citadel at home on Monday night. But even after this taxing victory, Stokes doesn’t see his coach letting up on the lone day in between games.
“I don’t know if rest is in coach Martin’s book,” Stokes laughed.
Tipoff is at 7 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena for Monday’s contest against The Citadel.