The 6-foot-8, 270-pound Vol sophomore posted his fourth consecutive home-floor double-double as the Vols nipped Vanderbilt 58-57 Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. He wasn't the whole show for the home team but he was pretty close. He accounted for more than half of Tennessee's offensive rebounds (7 of 12), one-third of its total rebounds (11 of 33), one-third of its blocks (3 of 9), nearly one-third of its points (19 of 58) and nearly one-third of its assists (3 of 10).
Even with Stokes serving as workhorse, however, the Vols were fortunate to win. Leading 52-41, they saw Vanderbilt score 11 consecutive points to pull even at 52 with 5:59 remaining. Tennessee eased ahead 58-54 when Skylar McBee hit the front end of a one-and-one with 51.6 seconds left, then tried to give the game away.
McBee missed the back end of the one-and-one, then Stokes missed the front end of a one-and-one with 37.1 seconds left. Vandy's Kedren Johnson missed the second of two foul shots but teammate James Siakam scored on the putback to whittle the deficit to 58-57. When Tennessee's Jordan McRae missed the front end of a one-and-one with 26.5 seconds left, Vanderbilt called timeout with 19.8 seconds left to set up the final shot.
With the Vols' Trae Golden sidelined by an in-game hamstring injury, Vanderbilt forced Tennessee into a switch that left the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Johnson guarded by 6-foot, 178-pound Vol walk-on Brandon Lopez. Lopez expected as much and was ready for the challenge.
"I checked the clock to make sure they weren't going to run another pick," he said. "There were five seconds left, so I just locked on."
Even with Lopez locked on, Johnson got almost to the basket before launching a three-foot jumper that rattled off the rim. Teammate Kevin Bright missed a follow attempt at the buzzer, enabling the Vols to escape.
Asked what went through his mind when he realized the game was going to hinge on his one-on-one confrontation with Johnson, Lopez replied: "When they switched it up and Kedren did get the ball, I was like 'Here it is.'"
|Tennessee's Jordan McRae lifts up a shot over the top of Vanderbilt's Dai-Jon Parker.|
"He gave us a big boost," Vol head man Cuonzo Martin said.
Stokes gave the Vols an even bigger boost. He scored seven points in the first 5:02, sparking Tennessee to a 12-0 lead. It was 19-5 midway through the half, then the Vols lost their focus. Vanderbilt went on an 18-3 run that gave the Commodores a 23-22 lead.
Asked if the Vols took their foot off the gas when they got the big lead, Stokes nodded.
"Definitely, I think we did," he said. "We slowed the ball down, didn't stay aggressive like we was supposed to."
Coming off an 18-rebound performance Saturday against Alabama, Stokes has 29 in his past two games.
"I think I did a good job rebounding again," he said. "Offensively, I still left a lot of points out there but I thought it went well."
In his last four home games Stokes has produced 15 points and 11 rebounds versus Ole Miss, 18 points and 11 rebounds against Mississippi State, 15 points and 18 rebounds versus Alabama, 19 points and 11 rebounds against Vanderbilt. That's an average of 16.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per contest. Conversely, in three SEC road games he had 6 points and 7 rebounds at Alabama, 4 points and 4 rebounds at Kentucky, 6 points and 4 rebounds at Ole Miss. That's an average of 5.3 points 5.0 rebounds.
Asked why he is so much efficient at home, Stokes shrugged.
"I don't know," he said. "I've been in college for about a year now and I've never understood why people play better at home. The goal's still orange."
For whatever reason, Stokes seems much more relaxed at Thompson-Boling.
"I feel like I do put a lot of pressure on myself," he said. "If I play bad I just can't enjoy life. I just want to go out there and have fun. I think I play better when I have fun."
Counting Saturday's 54-53 defeat of Alabama, Tennessee has won each of its last two games by one-point margins. The Vols couldn't win a close game earlier this season, so maybe that is a positive.
"I definitely think we're starting to turn the corner," Stokes said. "There were a lot of games we gave up. We were close to giving up these last two games but, thank God, things went in our favor this time."
Vanderbilt got 14 points from Johnson and 13 from 6-foot-10 reserve Josh Henderson. The Commodores (8-11 overall, 2-5 SEC) shot 42.9 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from 3.
McBee hit 3 of 5 shots from beyond the arc and chipped in 10 points for Tennessee. The Vols shot 42.0 percent from the field, 30.0 percent from 3 and 68.4 percent from the foul line. The Big Orange, now 11-8 and 3-4, visits Arkansas Saturday afternoon.