Man on fire

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With 11 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks, Tennessee freshman Jarnell Stokes was red hot in Saturday's 68-61 defeat of Vanderbilt ... but not as hot as he'd been the night before.

"I went to sleep around 8 o'clock and woke up at 10 with a fever of like 106 or 107 (degrees)," Stokes confided following the game. "The trainer came by around 1, and I was with him until around 3 in the morning."

Already down one big man due to the suspension of junior center Kenny Hall, the Vols appeared on the verge of losing another inside guy unless Stokes improved dramatically by Saturday's tipoff.

"We didn't know if he could play because he had some flu-like symptoms," head coach Cuonzo Martin recalled.

After committing seven turnovers in a 65-47 Vandy romp Jan. 24 at Nashville, Stokes wanted desperately to atone in the rematch at Knoxville. Based on his condition Friday night, however, he figured there was no way he'd be able to participate on Saturday.

"I was dehydrated and I was for sure I wasn't playing," he said.

Once he showed up at Thompson-Boling Arena, however, Stokes felt compelled to suit up and do whatever he could to help his teammates.

"I got to the locker room, and the guys sort of forced me to play," he said. "I was going to play regardless but my teammates saying 'We need you' gave me extra adrenalin to push through it."

A little chiding from Martin provided even more impetus for Stokes, who had been outplayed by 6-foot-11, 255-pound Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli in the earlier meeting.

"I was teasing him a little bit ... telling him he had the Ezeli flu," Martin recalled.

Stokes wasn't avoiding another showdown with Ezeli but he readily concedes that Vandy's big man is a rugged competitor.

"He's one of the most physical guys I've played against," Stokes said. "I give him credit for that."

Despite his fever, the 6-foot-8, 270-pound Vol rookie proved to be even more physical in Saturday's rematch. He outscored Ezeli 11 points to 6, outrebounded him 14 to 9 and blocked 5 shots to his foe's 1. Tennessee senior Cameron Tatum wasn't surprised that Stokes fought through his health issue to play well.

"I was aware of it," Tatum said, "but he's a warrior, so I knew he'd be all right."

Stokes did more than all right. Fourteen rebounds is a tremendous day's work, especially against a brute like Ezeli.

"I think I did a great job boxing him out because he's relentless at going after the rebounds," Stokes said. "He'll go over your back or push you out of the way for it, but I think I did a great job of boxing him out."

Best of all, the Vol freshman earned a measure of redemption for his earlier performance in Nashville.

"I definitely learned from that experience," Stokes said. "That was the first time I actually had some trouble with my game in college. I definitely remembered the last time and I remembered those guys (Commodores) saying they were the best team in Tennessee. That stuck with me."

One thing he learned from the earlier game was that post men must rely on brains, as well as brawn.

"In Nashville I was trying to be too aggressive ... seven turnovers," Stokes said. "I didn't realize Ezeli was such a great defender. In situations like that I just have to continue playing my role, and I think I did a great job of doing that today."

The previous Vanderbilt game was just the fourth college outing for Stokes, who joined the Vols at mid-term after graduating early from Memphis Southwind High School. His mistake-prone performance that night was not indicative of the poise he generally displays.

"He's a tough kid but the thing that helps is that he has such a pace to his game," Martin said. "He's not all over the place, he's not wild. He's under control. He gathers rebounds and he's a physical presence.

"He's a tough kid but, because of his pace, he's able to make adjustments. He has a real good feel for the game. It's a credit to him and his approach and also how he was raised. He understands how to compete and do the right things."

Despite his health problems, Stokes played with pace, poise and toughness Saturday afternoon. His teammates expected no less.

"He definitely redeemed himself," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "He played very well but we all knew he was going to play well."

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