KNOXVILLE — It’s a good thing for Tennessee’s basketball team that freshman Derek Reese is a fast healer.
Because if he wasn’t—and if the torn labrum he suffered last July and subsequent August surgery had kept him out six months, the average time frame for recovery, instead of a miraculous four months—the Vols would probably have lost to Xavier on Saturday night. And if that happened, with a game against Memphis on Jan. 4 all that separates Tennessee from Southeastern Conference play, well, who knows what might have happened to this team’s confidence?
Rest assured that no one on the Vols’ bench wanted to find out, and because Reese, who seemed a certain candidate to redshirt this season, drained two 3-pointers during a critical stretch of the second half, they won’t have to. Reese’s long-range daggers, the second of which gave Tennessee (8-3) the lead for good with 8:11 to play, shot the Musketeers out of what had been an effective 2-3 zone defense and led directly to a 51-47 win.
This game wasn’t all that different from the two low-scoring meat-grinders the Vols’ played—and lost—at Georgetown and Virginia nearly a month ago. Once again, Tennessee struggled to score. Its top 3-point shooter, Skylar McBee, continued his month-long decline from behind the arc. Point guard Trae Golden was in the process of turning in one of his worst games since taking over the starting job last season. And if sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes doesn’t immediately dismiss any notion of jumping to the NBA next season after getting benched for extended minutes in the second half in favor of fellow sophomore Yemi Makanjuola, he’s not thinking rationally.
Somebody had to step up, and with 17 minutes to play in the game, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin was searching for answers. The five players on the floor at the time proved as much. Golden was on the pine and walk-on Brandon Lopez was manning the point. Makanjuola subbed in for Stokes after the latter gave up an easy basket to Travis Taylor.
Makanjuola contributed eight boards, a blocked shot and a key drawn charge in nine minutes. Lopez scored a basket, grabbed two rebounds, handed out an assist and didn't commit a turnover in a career-high 13 minutes.
And then there was Reese, who was cleared to play only Friday. There’s no understating how unheard of Reese’s recovery has been. He underwent surgery on Aug. 21. The recovery process is supposed to take six months. Several D-I players in the last couple of years who suffered the same injury had to redshirt. But here was Reese, not only back on the floor, but playing major minutes.
“It wasn’t a question,” Martin said. “Once he was cleared to play—and we got the information yesterday—he was playing. Because I know what he brings to the table. He’s a difference maker.”
A difference maker? A former three-star recruit who some coaches in the SEC questioned could play at that level? Exactly. Because Reese fits into Martin’s system. He’s versatile enough to play three positions, one of them being the four spot. A four man who can make jump shots is vital in the motion offense Martin favors.
Reese missed his first five shots, but he didn’t let that stop him. His first career make, a 3-pointer from the right wing, drew the Vols, who trailed 33-23 with 15:34 to play, to within two at 33-31. His second, another 3-pointer with 8:11 to play, put the Vols ahead 38-35.
Tennessee still had a long way to go at that point, but the damage had been done. Momentum had spun back toward the Vols, who took a 44-48 lead with 4:45 to play on Josh Richardson’s two free throws.
At that point, Tennessee had to take care of the ball and hope Golden would come out of his funk long enough to make free throws to salt away yet another hard-fought win. When he drained the front end of a one and one with 23.5 seconds to play, it was his first point of the game. He hit his second free throw and the Vols lead 48-43. Golden returned to the line four more times in the final seconds and made 3 of 4, and the Vols’ escaped with a win on a night when even Martin, ever positive, wondered about their intestinal fortitude.
“I told them this was the first time all season that I thought we got out-toughed,” Martin said.
That was Xavier’s plan.
“We felt like if we could get into their psyche a little bit and make them feel like they felt against Western Carolina and Georgetown and keep the score low and mix and match our zone and man a little bit—which I thought we did—maybe we could get them a little bit tentative when they shoot,” Mack said.
And that might have worked, too, had not Reese been ready to play. Against Georgetown's zone, the Vols had no answers, no player to step up and make shots. When Virginia collapsed its man-to-man around Stokes and essentially dared Tennessee to score from the perimeter, again, no one stepped up.
On this night, a freshman, playing in his first Division I game, and coming off major surgery, delivered big time, just the way Martin had been saying he would.
"We gave up two wide-open jump shots," Mack said. "Nobody in our program is trying to dare teams to make open shots. We blew coverage."
The Musketeers blew coverage, and Reese was there to take advantage.
“It’s like a fairy tale,” Reese said. “It’s crazy to be in this moment right now.”