Change in plans

Future Tennessee Vol Brandon Lopez showed up at Bearden High Gym Wednesday night expecting to watch some basketball. Instead, he wound up playing some basketball.

Lopez spent the Rocky Top League's regular season playing for Ralph Brown & Associates, which did not qualify for the title game or the third-place game. When Larry Smith Insurance had just six players show up for Wednesday's third-place game against DeRoyal Industries, Lopez was asked if he'd suit up and serve as the team's second sub. He literally jumped at the chance.

"I keep my shoes in the car all the time and I already had my shorts on," Lopez said with a laugh. "They asked me to play, and I decided to."

A recent graduate of Knoxville's Austin-East High School, he hit 3 of 4 shots and scored 6 points in helping Smith Insurance to a 131-126 victory. Making the experience especially enjoyable was the number of Vol fans watching from the stands.

"I've always loved Vol Nation and everything about Tennessee," Lopez said. "I grew up being a big UT fan - cheering for the Lady Vols, plus men's football and basketball. The fans are a real big part of it."

A 6-1 point guard prospect, he averaged 25.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game as a senior last winter. He committed to Southern University but that fell through when the school had a coaching change.

Plan B was to walk on at Tennessee and play for colorful head coach Bruce Pearl. That fell through, too, when Pearl was dismissed in late March.

"I was a big Bruce Pearl fan but I'm also a big Cuonzo Martin fan," Lopez said, referring to Pearl's successor. "I like what he presents for us and everything."

Once Martin invited him to walk on at Tennessee, Lopez began stopping by the campus to play pickup games with and against his new teammates. He insists he wasn't nervous.

"No, it was OK," he said. "I'm a basketball player, and I love playing the game whenever and wherever it is. It was real fun."

It was real taxing, too. Most of Tennessee's players are older and more physically mature.

"It's always real competitive and real physical," he said. "They play real hard with me, helping me get stronger and helping me get better."

Lopez thoroughly enjoyed the Rocky Top League, particularly getting to know future Tennessee teammate Renaldo Woolridge.

"I think I gained some chemistry playing in this league with my teammates, especially Renaldo," Lopez noted. "I feel like I gained confidence and some fan support, too."

Lopez averaged just 6.2 points per game in the Rocky Top League but he made his shots count. He finished the season 17 for 29 from the field, an impressive 58.6 shooting percentage.

"I'm a point guard, and my main characteristic is leadership, but some people think I can't score," he said. "I'm not trying to be arrogant or anything but I can score. I put up big numbers in high schooI but I really love to lead my team and dish the ball.

"I'm all about winning, mainly."

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