UT's secret weapon

As the Tennessee Vols trotted onto the floor for pre-game warm-ups Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, they must have thought they'd stumbled into the wrong gym.

"When we came out for warm-ups the second time and saw how many people were out there, we couldn't believe it," senior forward Stanley Asumnu recalled.

That's because there were 15,797 butts in the seats. That's an amazing turnout for a weeknight game against a nondescript foe (Alabama A&M) in the middle of the holidays with virtually no students on campus.

The Vols responded with an outstanding performance, routing the visiting Bulldogs 93-68.

"We feed off the crowd," Asumnu said. "We're out there having fun."

The Vols are fun to watch, too. They've scored 463 points in five home games, an average of 92.6 per outing. They're also scoring points with the fans, who clearly enjoy the exciting brand of basketball they're witnessing.

As a result, the mood at Thompson-Boling Arena has undergone a dramatic transformation. Once a morgue housing a lifeless program, it is now a facility capable of providing a bona fide home-court advantage. That's a credit to new coach Bruce Pearl for reviving interest. That's a credit to the players for providing an entertaining style of basketball. That's a credit to the fans for supporting a program that gave them very little to cheer about for the past 20 years.

"The thing that jumped out at me tonight was 15,797," Pearl said to open his post-game remarks. "That's a great crowd for Christmas break. Our marketing department has been working triple-overtime to try and help us put people in the seats. I can't even begin to tell you how many people are working that."

Coming off a 16-point road loss to Oklahoma State, Pearl was afraid his team might be a little flat against an unheralded foe like A&M. The crowd didn't allow that to happen, however.

"If there was going to be a hangover from Oklahoma State and we didn't give an effort, I would've been really upset and disappointed because of 15,797 and because of an athletic department that is working so hard for us," Pearl said. "I'm glad our players responded in kind with a very fine effort."

Tennessee's fans – normally a quiet bunch – responded loudly whenever the Vol defense forced the visiting Bulldogs deep into the shot clock. This energized Tennessee's players, helping them limit A&M to 38-percent shooting.

"That helps a lot," JaJuan Smith said. "It gets you all fired up and wanting to make a stop or big play. And we did that tonight."

Will the support continue? Asumnu thinks it will … so long as the Vols continue to be successful.

"We're getting wins," he said. "Wins are the most important thing."

Maybe. But you got the distinct impression Tuesday night that the fans have embraced this team, win or lose. They can relate to the Vols' underdog mentality, their blue-collar work ethic and their all-out hustle.

Don't be surprised if the support for this team continues, even if the winning doesn't.

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