'Swiperboy' has arrived

It was appropriate that "Swiperboy" played a key role Sunday as Tennessee swiped a win from No. 1 Kansas.

Swiperboy, a.k.a. Renaldo Woolridge, was only starting because Tyler Smith was dismissed from the team two days earlier. But his contribution was critical as the Vols shocked the previously unbeaten Jayhawks 76-68 before a rocking crowd of nearly 22,000 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Woolridge made 4 of 6 shots - all beyond the arc - and finished with 14 points. He peeled down a team-high 8 rebounds and played some tenacious interior defense for a guy who packs just 208 pounds on a 6-9 frame.

"Renaldo goes 4 for 6 from 3 and has 8 rebounds - 7 defensive rebounds," head coach Bruce Pearl noted. "He's a big man that can shoot and rebound at a high, high level. Now he obviously is mixing it up physically."

Woolridge appeared to be the odd-man-out earlier this season, after playing just one minute in Game 4, three minutes in Game 5 and four minutes in Game 6. He stuck around, however, and eventually saw his minutes increase to 11 in Game 10 at Southern Cal and 17 in Game 11 vs. North Carolina A&T. Once Smith was suspended from the team on Jan. 1, Woolridge has seen his playing time rise dramatically. He played 27 minutes in Game 13 vs. Charlotte and 34 minutes in Game 14 vs. Kansas.

"Renaldo is a very well-conditioned athlete," Pearl said. "He played 34 minutes last night and did not take a possession off. It's a wonderful sign to see him play with consistent energy and, obviously, his upside is terrific."

Pearl isn't the only person who recognizes Woolridge's potential. The other players recognize it, as well.

"He's got the confidence of his teammates," Pearl noted. "His teammates believe in him. His family needed him, and he stepped up."

Woolridge concedes the point.

"My teammates believed in me, so I expect that out of me," he said of his strong showing vs. Kansas. "My teammates did a great job of opening up the floor, and I was able to knock down some shots early."

The Vol "family" was in disarray when Smith, Brian Williams, Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum were arrested on drug and gun charges on New Year's Day. The days since then have been traumatic but the six scholarship players still around are trying to make the best of a bad situation. They certainly succeeded against Kansas.

"We're a family, and we stick together," Woolridge said. "We told each other we were going to take it four minutes at a time and we've got to keep winning every four minutes."

Kansas appeared ready to take control of the game early, limiting Tennessee to three baskets in the first 10 minutes en route to a 16-10 lead. Woolridge hit three consecutive 3-point baskets, however, to ignite a 17-5 spurt that put Tennessee on top 27-21. The second of the 3-pointers banked in.

"It's funny. As soon as I let it go I knew it was long but it was straight," he said. "When it banked in, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, 'I'll take it.'"

Woolridge's breakout performance vs. Kansas didn't surprise one of his teammates at all.

"That's always been Renaldo's game," sophomore guard Scotty Hopson said. "He's a catch-and-stick player. He can put it on the floor. He can rebound well. He's finally getting to show what he can do, and I'm happy for him."

Woolridge is happy, too - not just because he's contributing but because the Vols overcame the loss of four key players to knock off the No. 1 team in America.

"It's truly a blessing," Woolridge said. "We've been through a lot as a team. Something like this is something we'll remember for the rest of our lives, especially me. It's a great feeling. It almost feels surreal."

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