KNOXVILLE — Seconds into Tennessee’s NIT game against Savannah State on Tuesday night, Yemi Makanjuola, the Vols’ freshman forward, received a post entry pass. Seeing his path to the basket blocked, Makanuola threw the ball back to the perimeter, but there was a problem — none of his teammates were anywhere near the vicinity of the pass.
Luckily for the Vols, guard Skylar McBee tracked down the ball. Once again, it was tossed in to Makanjuola, who missed a jump hook, or at least it sort of looked like a jump hook.
Hang on. It gets better.
In the next couple of minutes, Makanjuola grabbed defensive rebounds to end two straight Savannah State possessions. After a quick rest, Makanjuola came back and scored on a pass from Jordan McRae with 14:55 to play. Less than a minute later he was fouled going to the basket and made two free throws.
Makanjuloa ended the first half with six points and four rebounds, and finished Tennessee’s 65-51 victory a hero, having contributed 10 points, six of those scored at the free-throw line, a team-high eight rebounds and two blocked shots to the cause.
Makanjuola was a surprise starter, subbing for Jeronne Maymon, who was resting a sore knee. He’s also a case in point why the NIT, though a far cry from the NCAA tournament, is infinitely better for a fairly young team like Tennessee than an early spring break.
There’s no substitute for being under the gun, no better way to learn and improve. And as the game moved into crunch time, the Vols, who had led by as many as 17 points in the first half, were scrambling, holding onto a slim two-point lead with 14:31 to play.
At that point, Makanjuola re-entered the game and gave some tantalizing glimpses of his future. With 13:12 to play he drew a charge. A minute later, he blocked a shot and threw an outlet pass to Trae Golden, who scored for a 41-35 lead. At 11:43 Makanjuola turned back another shot, and 13 seconds later, he rebounded a Cameron Tatum miss and scored.
That basket gave Tennessee a 43-35 lead. The crisis was averted and the Vols advanced to a second-round game against Middle Tennessee.
Certainly Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin would have liked to have Maymon, a second-team All-SEC player, on the floor. But in Maymon’s stead, Makanjuola showed once again that his future is promising
This wasn’t the first time Makanjuola’s play contributed to a Tennessee victory. On Dec. 29, he scored 18 straight points — that’s right, 18 in a row — and grabbed 11 rebounds in 18 minutes against The Citadel. But coming into the Savannah State game, he had scored only 13 more points the rest of the season.
By virtue of earning a postseason bid, the Vols gave the young big man more room to grow. And he wasn’t the only Tennessee freshman to get some much-needed extra work. Jarnell Stokes scored a team-high 13 points, grabbed five boards and blocked three shots. And Josh Richardson scored 10 points, one off his season high.
Tennessee’s freshmen accounted for 33 points, by far their most as a group this season. The previous best was 22 in a win at LSU in late February, but 18 of those were scored by Stokes.
Stokes has received considerably more press and attention befitting his status as a five-star recruit, but Martin is convinced that, like Stokes, Makanjuola will become an everyday contributor.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Martin said. “He’s already tough, so he has that ingredient. Now it’s just a matter of him continuing to develop his skills. But he puts the time into it.
“He’s done a really good job of getting after it in practice. He’s been working hard. He’s not a guy that saves energy. He’s been working with (Tennessee assistant coaches) on his post moves. It’s really with his body balance more than anything, and having patience in the post. But he puts the time in.”
Makanjuola got the word Tuesday afternoon that he was going to start.
“When I sat down and thought about it, I got a little nervous,” he said.
That pass to nowhere was a sign Makanjuola’s nerves hadn’t quite gone away by the opening tip. But he was able to play his way through them. That opportunity hasn’t come along often this season.
“It’s not that he hasn’t been good enough to play,” McBee said. “But we’ve got Jarnell and Jeronne, and he’s had to play behind those guys. But he’s going to continue to get better and better. He’s going to have a great career.”