Makin' like Maymon

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Tennessee didn't have All-SEC post Jeronne Maymon available for Tuesday night's NIT opener but it had a guy capable of doing a pretty good impersonation.

Yemi Makanjuola produced 10 points and 8 rebounds — nearly matching Maymon's season averages of 12.6 and 8.1 — in helping the Vols turn back Savannah State 65-51 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"Yemi played outstanding ... stepped up, played strong, took some charges," Vol senior Cameron Tatum said. "He kind of fit the mold of Jeronne in his actions — being hardnosed and being a warrior out there."

Sophomore point guard Trae Golden also praised Makanjuola's fill-in effort, noting: "Yemi was huge. He picked up the slack for Jeronne being out. He was great tonight. Now the thing for him is to play like that every time he gets in the game and be a force down low for us."

Makanjuola clearly was proud of his performance, noting: "I think I play good. I was a little bit nervous but my coaches and teammates told me to do the same thing I did in practice."

A raw but gifted 6-foot-9, 244-pound freshman from Nigeria, he saw backup action his last two seasons of high school ball and in Tennessee's first 32 games this season. So, when he learned during Tuesday's pre-game walk-through that he would be starting, he was a little shocked.

"I was just speechless," he said. "I didn't know what to say. My teammates were saying congratulations but that's all I can remember."

Fortunately for the Vols, actions speak louder than words, and Makanjuola's actions Tuesday night spoke volumes. He made 2 of 5 field-goal attempts but, more importantly, drained 6 of 7 free throws. That was quite a feat for a guy who had made just 5 of 13 shots from the foul line previously.

"Yemi's a young guy that loves the game of basketball, wants to get better and never quits."

—Cameron Tatum

"I do extra work with the coaches after every drill," he explained. "I shoot like 100 every day."

One reason he needs the extra practice is to become more comfortable with his new shooting stroke.

"Our coaches made me change my form," he said. "I always put my hand on the outside of the ball; now I put it behind the ball so I get a good follow-through."

Makanjuola showed some jitters in the opening minutes of Tuesday night's game. He blew a layup on Tennessee's first possession, then gave up an offensive rebound and committed a foul.

"I got a little bit nervous," admitted, "and I did some things I shouldn't have in the first two minutes of the game."

He settled down quickly, however, hitting a layup and two free throws in helping Tennessee race to a 15-2 lead. Two more foul shots widened the gap to 26-9.

When Savannah State closed to 35-33 in the second half, Makanjuola made two key plays during a 14-4 spurt that turned the tide. After blocking a shot by Rashad Hassan on the defensive end, he scored on a putback at the offensive end. Makanjuola finished off his night with two clutch free throws that bumped the lead to 62-51 with 1:24 remaining.

"I thought Yemi played really well, accepting that starting role," Vol head man Cuonzo Martin said. "He defended, played extremely hard, rebounded the ball. He gathered himself when he got an offensive rebound and made plays. He made his free throws — six of seven — and that was just as impressive."

Also impressive was the fact the ultra-aggressive Makanjuola committed just two fouls in 16 minutes of court time. This is the same guy who fouled out in a mere 12 minutes at LSU three games earlier.

Asked to explain his relatively foul-free performance, he replied: "When the big guy has got the ball, I try to play without getting fouls."

Makanjuola's high point came Dec. 29 against Citadel. He scored 18 consecutive Vol points during one stretch and finished with a double/double of 18 points and 11 rebounds. The low point occurred two weeks later, when the arrival of heralded mid-term enrollee Jarnell Stokes bumped Makanjuola from No. 3 in the post rotation to No. 4. Rather than pout or transfer, he continued to work on developing his game. Teammates weren't surprised.

"Yemi's a young guy that loves the game of basketball, wants to get better and never quits," Tatum said. "You need those type of guys on your team. Like Coach Martin says, 'You never know what's going to happen,' so Yemi staying ready is going to pay dividends, especially in a tournament like this."

Because he didn't play basketball until he was 13 years old, Makanjuola's hoops development is still in its infancy. He projects to be a major contributor in the years to come.

"There's no doubt in my mind," Martin said. "He's already tough, so he has that ingredient. Now it's a matter of developing his skills, and he puts so much time into it."

There's a reason Makanjuola devotes so much time to his game. He likes being on the floor a lot better than being on the sidelines.

"I know if I don't play well, I'm going to be on the bench," he said. "So I try to do what I've been working on and get better."

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