"Before they even threw the tip up, I looked at our guards and we got Jarnell's attention," Josh Richardson said. "I was like 'Get the ball inside to him' because we knew we had to get him rolling."
Stokes got rolling, all right, finishing with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks in perhaps his finest outing of the year. Even Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin conceded that the 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore "dominated around the rim."
With Stokes finally resembling the force he was projected to be in preseason, Tennessee finally resembled the team it was projected to be in preseason. The Vols led virtually wire to wire en route to a 72-57 defeat of Mississippi State.
Conceding that "It definitely makes a difference" when he plays well, Stokes added: "But I don't want to just say it's myself. When Trae (Golden) is going, when Josh is going, when Jordan (McRae) is going, it's hard to beat us."
Stokes' quality work on the inside opened things up on the outside for Richardson, McRae and Golden. Richardson made 6 of 9 shots en route to 16 points. McRae hit 5 of 12 and chipped in 12 points. Golden just missed a double-double with 10 points and 9 assists in a 26-minute relief stint. Many of his assists benefited Stokes, who got the ball in good positions and converted all afternoon.
"I feel like the guys are doing a better job of finding me," Stokes said. "Mississippi State had one man guarding me. Then, once I put the ball on the floor, they'd trap me. When I'm able to read the defense like that, that pretty much helps me out."
|Jarnell Stokes thunders home two of his team-leading 18 points versus Mississippi State.|
"That was one of my emphases tonight," he said. "I wanted to use more of my athleticism because I feel like I'm more athletic than I've been showing."
As a former five-star recruit, Stokes knows he did not live up lofty expectations the first half of this season. He says college ball presented problems he never faced as a high schooler back in Memphis.
"Double-teams are new to me because they're part of the game plan at the college level," he said. "I've struggled with double-teams but I work on it every day in practice, and I showed signs of getting better at it today."
Stokes said double-teams "confused" him at first because he couldn't decide whether to wait for the second defender and react or try to attack the rim before the second defender arrived. Now he believes the second option is preferable.
"That's one of the things I want to do – be athletic and show my athleticism," he said. "I've been trying to attack the double-team before it gets there. I feel like I'm quick enough to do that."
When Stokes is exploiting his burly frame down low he makes life a lot simpler for Tennessee's perimeter players.
"It's real easy," Richardson said. "They can't guard Jarnell with one person. They've always got to send somebody else. He's good at passing the ball outside, so that definitely loosens up the floor for us."
That was evident early. Richardson scored seven points as the Vols spurted to an 8-2 lead. McRae produced three consecutive baskets as the lead swelled to 25-18. Tennessee was 10 of 18 from the field at that point.
The Big Orange led 37-29 at halftime but would've led much bigger if not for Knoxville native Jalen Steele. Passed over by Vol recruiters three years ago, Steele hit 6 of 10 shots and had 13 points at the break. Leg cramps limited him to eight minutes and two points in the second half, however.
The game was still competitive until Tennessee made a decisive run five minutes into the second half. Vol freshman Derek Reese drained three 3-pointers in a 13-2 explosion that bumped a 42-37 lead to 55-39 with 11:38 to play. The Bulldogs never got closer than nine points thereafter.
Another Vol freshman, Armani Moore, chipped in 4 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals in 25 quality minutes for Tennessee, now 9-7 overall and 1-3 in SEC play.
Steele scored 15 points and Fred Thomas 14 to pace Mississippi State, now 7-9 and 2-2.