Plugging away

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Having fought his way off the mean streets of East St. Louis and fought back from cancer, Cuonzo Martin appears to have instilled that same fighting spirit in his Tennessee basketball team.

Every time you think the Vols are ready to tank, they rally instead.

Exhibit A: Many fans were ready to shovel dirt on the team during a four-game December losing streak that included a humiliating home loss to a 1-9 Austin Peay squad. Instead of imploding, though, Tennessee responded with a four-game winning streak.

Exhibit B: After a 1-4 start in SEC play, the Vols appeared on track to meet preseason projections of an 11th-place finish in conference action. They've gone 6-2 since then, however, and currently share fourth place with a 7-6 league record.

Exhibit C: Coming off a discouraging loss at Alabama last Saturday, the Vols fell behind 15-2 in the opening minutes of Wednesday's game with Ole Miss. Instead of folding, they outscored the Rebels 48-24 over the next 24 minutes to build a 50-39 lead en route to a 73-60 victory.

Bottom line: The Vols do not quit.

"Not as long as I'm coaching this program," Martin vowed. "We're going to fight to the end. You'll have bad games where you don't play well but we're going to fight to the end, regardless of the outcome.... That's the brand; that's who we are. We'll lose ball games — I have no problem with losing ball games — but we're going to go down swinging."

Still, Martin understands why some fans lost faith in the Big Orange during the pre-conference portion of its schedule.

"We weren't a very good team in preseason," he said. "It was tough to watch but those guys stayed the course and got better."

Tennessee routinely offsets in determination what it lacks in talent. Wednesday night the Vols were so determined, however, that they were playing tight in the game's opening minutes. They made just one of their first eight shots en route to the 15-2 deficit. Jordan McRae came off the bench at this first point and helped launch the comeback.

"It was definitely imperative for me to bring energy," he said. "Our starters were a little tight out there."

The starters may have been tight but the head man wasn't. Even with his team down 15-2, Martin was unflappable.

"He just told us to calm down, that everything would be fine," point guard Trae Golden recalled. "The mood hadn't changed at all. We've been down before and come back. We understand what it takes to come back. We can't afford to really get (emotionally) down. We have to be positive, know it's a long game and anything can happen."

What happened was that Tennessee kept its poise, quit turning the ball over, quit giving up easy baskets and began making a few shots. That enabled the Vols to turn a horrendous start into a double-digit victory.

"That shows we're a team and on the right track to do some things," junior power forward Jeronne Maymon said. "We've just got to continue to plug away."

As long as Cuonzo Martin is running the show, you get the idea Tennessee will continue to plug away. His fighting spirit seems to have spread throughout the team.

Jordan McRae

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