"That was huge ... the fact Skylar took those shots with great confidence," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "His shooting was really a key."
Skylar McBee, a 6-2 freshman walk-on from Rutledge, starred in preseaon scrimmages but opened the regular season in frigid fashion. He made just 7 of his first 22 field-goal tries, and his 31.8 shooting percentage ranked 13th among the 14 players on the Vol roster through six games. Naturally, his confidence slipped a bit ... but not too much.
"When you miss a couple of shots," he said, "you have to keep that confidence level up and believe the next one is going in."
With starting wing Scotty Hopson struggling through a poor first half (1 of 5 from 3) Wednesday night, McBee came off the Vol bench and promptly nailed a 3-pointer in an 11-0 run that boosted Tennessee's lead from 15-12 to 26-12.
McBee returned to action six minutes into the second half and drained two more 3s in a 10-5 spurt that extended the Vol margin from 46-41 to 56-46. His last one came immediately after ETSU's Justin Tubbs had fired in a 3 over McBee.
"When that guy came down and made a 3 on him, Skylar came right back and shot a 3 on him," Vol teammate Bobby Maze noted with a laugh. "It was one of them 'Oh, no! Oh, yeah!' moments. I'm just glad to see he has that confidence because he really can shoot the basketball."
After making just 33.3 percent (6 of 18) from beyond the arc through the first six games, McBee now finds himself at 41.8 percent (9 of 21). That's what a 3-for-3 performance can do.
"When you hit your first couple of shots it's always a confidence booster," he said. "I got the first couple to fall, then hit another one after that. You're going to have games where you shoot well and you're going to have games where you don't shoot as well. You just have to always believe that next one's going in."
Tennessee ranked dead last among the 12 SEC teams in 3-point percentage last season, so Vol veterans were thrilled to see McBee break out of his early-season shooting slump.
"That's what Skylar can do - knock down shots - and we've been waiting on him to come out and do those things," All-America forward Tyler Smith said. "We want him to keep shooting the ball and keep knocking those shots down. That's just going to open up the defense more."
McBee was a big-time scorer at Grainger County High School, averaging 24 points per game and shooting 39.4 percent from 3 as a senior. His defense was so suspect, though, that he got no major-college scholarship offers. Electing to walk on at UT, he has worked diligently to improve his all-around game.
"He's really trying," Pearl said. "He's a better defender than he gives himself credit for. He's a little worried about getting beat off the dribble, looking like he's too slow or not being aggressive."
McBee conceded that his defensive play is coming around.
"I think I've improved the most defensively," he said. "Coming out of high school there was a lot of doubt as to whether I could defend at this level. I think a lot of it is just effort and coming out to play hard. I think that would be the biggest jump I've made - quickness and defense."
No matter how much his defense improves, however, McBee's greatest contribution to Vol hoops will be the one he made Wednesday night ... knocking down clutch 3-pointers.
"Those were very big," Maze said, "but it doesn't surprise me at all. Skylar's one of the hardest workers on the team. He's always the first one in the gym and one of the last ones to leave, working on his shot. I'm glad to see he has confidence."
Odds are, Skylar's confidence is sky-high at the moment.