Finishing touches

In the closing minutes of a tight basketball game you want a guy on the floor who is physically and mentally tough. You want a guy who is confident enough to take the clutch shot. You want a guy who is deadly from the foul line.

You want a guy like Emmanuel Negedu.

He is not yet a finished product but he's a high-energy guy who finishes around the basket. As a result, he could be finishing games for the Tennessee Vols in the not-so-distant future.

The 6-7, 230-pound freshman from Nigeria – by way of Brewster Academy in New Hampshire – got a late start in basketball, playing his first organized game at age 15. Though his development is still in its infancy, he could be emerging as a key player for the Vols. That's because he is a productive inside player who excels at the free-throw line.

In Wednesday night's 79-73 loss to LSU, for instance, he scored 11 points in just 15 minutes of court time. He also contributed 2 rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot. Moreover, he drained six of six foul shots, bumping his season total to 25 of 29. That's a team-best 86.2 percent success rate, nearly 10 percentage points ahead of runnerup Tyler Smith (76.5).

Asked about his free-throw prowess on the post-game show, Negedu replied: "In high school I was a little bit good. When I get to Tennessee my free throws got a little better."

Like his all-around game, Negedu's grammar needs a little work. Still, his hoops progress has been nothing short of dramatic.

Inserted into the Vol lineup late in the first half of Wednesday night's game, he immediately hit a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer. He returned midway through the second half and ignited a rally that nearly pulled out the victory. He muscled home an inside basket and sank four free throws in a 15-2 UT spurt that whittled a 59-45 deficit to 61-60.

Negedu wound up being Tennessee's most productive inside scorer of the night. Six-foot-9 Wayne Chism scored a team-high 19 points but made 4 of 6 shots from 3 and just 1 of 8 shots around the basket. The 6-foot-7 Smith, double-teamed whenever he touched the ball, made just 2 of 7 shots (one being a 3-pointer) and finished with a season-low 9 points. Brian Williams used his 6-10, 270-pound frame to muscle home two first-half baskets but was scoreless in the second half.

All told, Negedu's inside touches resulted in 8 points (one basket, six free throws). That was one more inside point than Chism managed, two more than Smith produced and four more than Williams registered.

The 15 minutes Negedu played Wednesday night was his longest outing since playing 20 minutes vs. Georgetown on Nov. 28. Given that he was averaging just nine minutes per game coming in, he found the added playing time exhilarating.

"Coach (Bruce Pearl) tells me to stay ready all the time, that anything can happen, I can step on the court and get more minutes ... just like what happened in Georgetown," Negedu said. "Brian (Williams) was hurt, so I got time to play a lot.

"I stay ready all the time because I know that, if anything goes wrong, I have to step up."

He certainly stepped up Wednesday night. As a result, he may get to finish some games in the not-so-distant future.

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