KNOXVILLE — If one play could epitomize what Tennessee basketball has become in two seasons under coach Cuonzo Martin, it would be this one:
Fifty-six seconds remained in the Vols’ slugfest with No. 8 Florida on Tuesday night. Tennessee, clinging to a 58-54 lead and desperately looking for a basket that would provide final separation from the Gators, called a timeout to set up a play. Appropriately enough, the call was for junior guard Jordan McRae, who had already scored 25 points, to knife through the lane for either a layup or a called foul and a couple of free throws.
The play worked to perfection, only McRae’s aim was off ever so slightly. Florida’s 6-foot-9, 250-pound Patric Young, a sculpted bruiser who would look at home on any Muscle Beach in America, and 6-10, 240-pound Eric Murphy formed a human roadblock as they waited for the rebound.
Suddenly, Young wasn’t in position anymore, bumped out of the way by the one man in the Southeastern Conference who makes him look like his nickname is Slim.
Jarnell Stokes was on the scene.
The Vols’ 6-8, 270 tractor trailer then moved in front of Murphy, claimed the rebound, put up a shot that hung on the rim before it fell through the net, and in the process managed to get fouled by Murphy. And then the capper: though he’s shooting less than 60 percent from the free-throw line this season, Stokes managed to convert one of the toughests and ones you’ll see on the collegiate level.
With that display of Stokes’ might, Tennessee’s lead nearly doubled, and the hard-charging Vols, stubbornly clinging to the belief they can claim an NCAA Tournament bid despite a 3-6 start to SEC play, held on for a 64-58 victory, their sixth straight.
Asked to analyze that play, Stokes, who turned 19 less than two months ago and who has improved in the area of media relations as much as he’s improved on the court, offered one word:
“Genetics?” he said.
Then the big man got serious.
“My mindset is to just go after every rebound,” he said. “Coach Martin tells us all the time don’t worry about your scoring. If you’re not scoring the ball, rebound, play hard, and play defense. I knew I hard to get that rebound.”
That rebound was one of 14 on the night for Stokes, who, since SEC play began last month, has been snatching errant shots away from unsuspecting opponents with alarming regularity. To say the young man is a great rebounder in traffic doesn’t begin to do him justice.
“He’s made that commitment,” Martin said. “The commitment to get big rebounds. If there’s a rebound to be had, he’s going to get it. Sure, he’s a big, physical guy, but he takes pride in rebounding. That’s why you’re seeing results.
“That was a big rebound. A physical rebound. He made it look easy. And it got us over the hump.”
Young was asked what it was like jousting with Stokes. He just shook his head.
“He’s a really big body,” Young said. “A lot of his weight is in his lower body, so that helps him out a lot. It’s tough pushing him out of the way. He got two game-changing rebounds when I was trying to push him out of the way. Him being able to do that is what makes him special.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan, thinks there’s another, overlooked facet to Stokes’ manly rebounding.
“He’s a big, strong guy,” Donovan said. “But the best part of his game in my opinion is he’s got great hands. That’s his greatest strength. He doesn’t have great lift around the basket. He struggles to score maybe when he doesn’t have a lot of angles. But when the ball’s up there and it’s loose, he gets his hands on it and he grabs it. That’s why he rebounds so well.”
Martin loves to hear comments like that one, because, no matter what’s happening to his team, he never waivers from the basic tenets that he learned as a player, then a coach under Gene Keady at Purdue. Defend. Rebound. Play hard. Play smart.
“That’s the blueprint of our program,” Martin said. “You have to be able to do those things in order to be successful. And right now, we’re doing them.”