Gashed by four consecutive losses, the Big Orange desperately needed to stop the bleeding Tuesday night against visiting UNC Asheville. With seniors Cameron Tatum and Renaldo Woolridge essentially playing the role of tourniquets, the Vols managed to do just that — rallying from a 10-point second-half deficit to nip the Bulldogs 72-68.
Woolridge closed the wound early, scoring 13 first-half points in helping Tennessee trim a 17-28 deficit to 32-35 by the break. Tatum took it from there. When UNCA surged ahead 46-36 with 16:30 to go, he scored 14 points in a 27-13 spurt that gave the Vols a 63-59 lead. That kind of production from the roster's only seniors is critical for a team as inexperienced as Tennessee.
"It is important that the seniors step up because it gives them (younger players) that structure," Woolridge said. "It's like if you see your big brother defend you, it gives you confidence because you know he has your back. I think Cam and me having good games gives the younger guys confidence."
Tatum's binge included three consecutive 3-pointers between the 8:50 and the 5:07 marks. The Vols needed every one of them, too, because Woolridge was on the bench with four fouls and point guard Trae Golden was struggling through a 1-for-8 shooting performance.
Despite going 0-for-6 in Game 8 and 1-for-6 in Game 9, Tatum figured he needed to take the clutch shots in Game 10. When the first try hit the mark, he began "feeling it" and got his "confidence flowing," so Tatum took it upon himself to halt Tennessee's losing streak.
"I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to win a ball game," he said. "I've been disappointed in myself the last two games as a senior leader -— playing the way I've been playing. It's my last year, and I can't have games like that. I have to play aggressive on both ends of the floor."
He certainly did that. Giving perhaps his best all-around performance as a Vol, Tatum finished 5 of 8 from the field, including 4 of 5 from 3, en route to a team-high 17 points. He made 3 of 4 free throws, pulled down 7 rebounds, dished out 3 assists and played 31 minutes without a turnover. He also was active on defense, drawing several charging calls.
Tatum credited his superior play to a telephone call earlier this week from head coach Cuonzo Martin.
"He said, 'Don't worry about your shot. Just worry about playing hard each minute you're out there on the floor. As long as you're playing hard, everything will fall into place,'" Tatum recalled. "Hearing that from him gave me the added confidence to attack the practice floor, then translate it to the game."
As happy as he was on a personal level, Tatum was just as happy for Woolridge. The seldom-used 6-foot-9 senior came off the bench to sink 7 of 12 shots, including 3 of 6 from behind the arc, en route to a career-high 17-point effort of his own.
"That was huge for him, especially for his confidence," Tatum said. "We need that from Renaldo. Renaldo has always been a talented player; we've just been waiting for him to put it all together. I think it's all up top (in his head). Once Renaldo gets it up top and starts consistently playing that way, you'll see a lot of good things from him."
Tennessee, now 4-6, shot just 43.3 percent from the field and 33.3 percent (8 of 24) from 3 but finished with more rebounds (37 to 33) and fewer turnovers (12 to 14) than the visitors, who shot 44.9 percent from the field and 36.8 percent (7 of 19) from 3. J.P. Primm scored 25 points to pace UNCA, now 6-5.
Asked if he felt he willed the Vols to victory in the hard-fought contest, Tatum shrugged.
"I think we willed each other," he said. "Everybody played a big role in winning tonight. It wasn't just one or two people."
That's true. Kenny Hall chipped in 12 points, 3 blocks, 4 rebounds and 2 assists. Jeronne Maymon added 10 points, 13 rebounds and 3 assists. Even Golden, playing with a broken nose and a missing-in-action jump shot, came through in the clutch. He scored all five of his points in the final 3:41 — the two biggest being a pair of clutch free throws that padded the lead to 71-68 with 16.6 seconds left.
Ultimately, Tennessee's unofficial Senior Night was a success, as several players helped bring the ugly losing streak to an end.
"We thought about it before the game," Tatum said. "That was our main focus: We can't go down five straight ... we've got to figure out a way to get a win."