Hidden hero

He didn't start the game. He made just 1 of 4 shots and finished with a mere 2 points. He wasn't invited to the post-game interview room. But you can take this to the bank: Tennessee would not have beaten Alabama without him.

Ryan Childress was the hidden hero of Wednesday night's 69-66 overtime victory. That's why he played a career-high 23 minutes. That was more minutes than Duke Crews, who is considerably more talented. That was more minutes than Dane Bradshaw, who is considerably more polished.

Wednesday's game wasn't about talent or polish. It was about size and physicality. At 6-9 and 240 pounds, Childress has size. And he is as rugged as anyone on Tennessee's roster. The guy known as "Chilly" isn't just competitive; he's combative.

Childress' size and combative nature were crucial against a Bama team built around two outstanding big men – 6-10, 220-pound Jermareo Davidson and 6-8, 265-pound Richard Hendrix. Bradshaw, at 6-4 and 205, gave his all but was overmatched. Childress was not. He went nose to nose with the Tide twosome and held his own.

Childress finished with 4 offensive rebounds and 7 total rebounds – both team highs. He dished out 2 assists and recorded a steal. He helped limit Davidson (3 of 8) and Hendrix (3 of 10) to 6-of-18 shooting and 18 combined points … 12 below their average. And his all-out hustle helped keep the home crowd at fever pitch from opening tip to final horn.

"I really appreciate how the crowd responds to Ryan," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "He gives a terrific effort. And he's gotten bouncier. All the work he's done in the weight room and cutting some weight has made him so much more agile."

Alabama loves to pound the ball inside and outmuscle opponents, so Tennessee's challenge Wednesday night was to match the Tide in terms of toughness and surpass the Tide in terms of effort. Childress helped the Vols succeed on both counts.

"We knew inside they were going to be real athletic, real physical," he said. "I thought we did a good job using our bench to wear them out. And we did a great job getting the loose balls and getting the best out of the 50/50 balls, and that was a key to winning the game."

With Bradshaw mired in the mother of all slumps – making just 6 of his last 50 field-goal tries – Childress has seen his playing time increase steadily in recent weeks. He has averaged exactly 18 minutes per game over the past four outings.

Like Bradshaw, Chilly majors in hustle plays and intangibles. He averages 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game but also contributes assists (24), steals (20), blocked shots (14) and the occasional 3-pointer (13). God only knows how many charges he has taken and how many loose balls he has corralled.

"I do whatever the game calls for," Childress said. "That's definitely my role – to provide the Xs and Os for the team. I try to bring energy, get loose balls, box out, get rebounds … do the small things that don't get noticed as much."

Those "small things" weren't so small Wednesday night. Tennessee would not have beaten Alabama without them.

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