KNOXVILLE -- As Tennessee worked with a slimmed down nine-man rotation due to the indefinite suspension of four players, the Vols turned to a cast of unlikely characters for some major offensive production in an 88-71 victory over Charlotte at Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night.
It may have provided insight to what critics thought the No. 16 Vols have been missing: urgency.
There were plenty of questions going into Tennessee's first game without suspended starters Tyler Smith and Cameron Tatum and reserves Melvin Goins and Brian Williams, namely who would step up offensively and how would the uptempo Vols handle adversity with a short bench.
"I always tell people when they come to Tennessee, your opportunity is going to come," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said. "Are you going to be ready?"
Tennessee's reserves were ready.
Freshman post player Kenny Hall had one of his most solid outings of the season with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Along with his five boards, he had one assist, one block and one steal. His jumper with 12:33 to go in the first half stopped an 8-0 run by the 49ers that brought them to within six points of the Vols. And he scored six of his points during a stretch run late in the game when Charlotte went nearly six minutes without a field goal.
Sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge was one of the team's biggest contributors, earning the start and scoring 10 points with a team-high seven rebounds. He played a whopping 27 minutes, a far cry from his previous season-high of 17 against North Carolina A&T. He was averaging eight minutes a game.
"We all told Renaldo, there's no more time for a soft Renaldo," senior Wayne Chism said. "Renaldo became a stronger Renaldo in the last couple of days in practice because we were telling him, it's game time. There's nobody on the bench that's going to come sub you in. You can't look to the bench now. If you make a mistake, let's move on and keep playing."
Tennessee came out early and established the tempo, and Woolridge said that was critical for everyone on the floor.
"We had so much excitement going into the game just sticking together and knowing that this was our opportunity. We all fed off each other," Woolridge said. "Coach put me in the spot Tyler was in, starting in the 4 position, and I definitely had to step my game up."
Even starters Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince had significant games. Maze got 10 of his 13 points in the paint through drives and work underneath the basket. Prince also added 10 points and was the primary ball handler when Charlotte pressed late in the second half.
The default stars got their points. Chism poured in a game-high 18 points and dished six assists. Scotty Hopson added a quiet 17 points with a second-half that saw him drop eight points in the paint in the final 7:20.
But Chism pointed to the much-needed help as the key to their performance.
"It means a lot," Chism said of the role players stepping up. "What they did in the game, they do in practice. And they did a heckuva job."
"The guys stepped up and played with confidence and freedom and energy," Pearl said. "When things don't go well, the people that have your back are your family. They come to your aid first. Our Tennessee family is pulling together."
That showed Wednesday. Former Vol great Bernard King came in for the game and talked to the team about overcoming adversity and pulling together as a family. The announced crowd of 17,023 was louder than it has been at any other time this season - and louder than it has been since the Vols hosted Texas two years ago, Chism proclaimed.
So when the buzzer sounded and the team shook hands, Pearl sent his players to the doors of the arena to personally thank the fans that showed support in time of need.
"They stuck with us through some very tough situations, and we were glad they came out and supported us for this game," Chism said. "We appreciated it with all of our heart. There are some die-hard Tennessee fans out there. They come back after any incident and support the team, through thick and thin. We're glad they did."
Now the attention turns to top-ranked Kansas. The Jayhawks (14-0) come to Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday for a 4:30 p.m. tipoff.
"We won't catch anybody by surprise now," Pearl said. "So it's important the players don't celebrate this much. Feel good about it, but with Kansas and the SEC staring us in the face, we know what challenges lie ahead. We gained some confidence, but now what do we do with that confidence? It's all about where we go from here."
The Vols will once again be without the four suspended players as no timeline has been set for disciplinary actions.
"I feel like this situation made us stronger, made us come together as a group," Hall said. "We're just looking forward. Whatever happens, happens. We're just going to stay focused."
Added Chism: "Staying together. That's going to be our big thing, staying together and staying positive."
(E-mail Stan Crawley at firstname.lastname@example.org)