Jarnell Stokes feels a few butterflies before any big game. The Tennessee newcomer admits he had a few more before making his first start.
Stokes had 16 points and 12 rebounds while playing in just his third collegiate game to lead the Volunteers to a 60-57 victory against No. 13 Connecticut on Saturday.
"I think it was a little more special for me (going from) high school and working out by myself to being in front of 20,000," Stokes said. "It's different. It definitely gave me more adrenaline."
Stokes graduated from Memphis' Southwind High School a semester early, practiced for the first time with the Vols on Jan. 9 and then played in his first game five days later against No. 2 Kentucky. He's impressed his coaches and teammates, averaging 12 points and eight rebounds in three games.
He helped Tennessee build a second-half lead against the defending national champion Huskies, who made their first ever appearance at the Vols' Thompson-Boling Arena in front of a near-sellout crowd.
"He had some breakdowns defensively, which is expected because he's learning as we go, but I thought his energy, his toughness, his will to receive the ball and desire to score the ball really helped us get over the hump," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I think our bigs are really playing some good basketball right now.
"It was just a good win for us and our program," added Martin, who now has two wins against Top 25 teams in his first season in Knoxville. The Vols previously beat then-No. 13 Florida 67-56 on Jan. 7
The teams had traded the lead six times in the first half in a game that was tied five times. UConn's Jeremy Lamb drove past Stokes to the basket and hit a layup to send UConn into halftime with a 27-25 lead.
But the Vols opened the second half with a 3-pointer from Cameron Tatum, who finished with 15 points, and a layup by Stokes. Tennessee scored the first nine points of the half and wouldn't trail again.
"They made some big plays and defended us pretty well," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "Mainly they just dug, scratched and clawed. We thought on tape they played hard, and they played harder than we did. That's how they won the game."
The Huskies missed their first five shots from the field after halftime. Napier hit a long jumper with 15:22 to play to end the drought, cutting Tennessee's lead to 34-30.
Then it was the Vols who went cold, going 6:32 without a field goal. Stokes hit a free throw during the drought and finally sank a jumper with 9:55 to play, and the freshman went on to score a total of six points during a 2-minute stretch to help the Vols build their lead.
Tennessee led by 10 points with 3:15 remaining and had a 55-48 lead when Lamb sank a 3-pointer to cut the margin to four with 37 seconds left. Lamb then fouled Trae Golden, who made one of his two free throws before Shabazz Napier hit a 3 to cut the Vols' lead to 56-54 with 23 seconds to go.
Niels Giffey fouled Tennessee's Skylar McBee, who hit both free throws to seal it. Tennessee hit 7 of 10 free throws in the final minute to hold off the Huskies after having shot 42.3 percent.
Tennessee had struggled with ball control in recent games and committed a season-high 20 turnovers in an overtime loss at Georgia on Wednesday. The Vols gave the ball away nine times in the first half, leading to nine UConn points, but would only commit one turnover on an offensive foul in the second half.
Connecticut came in averaging 47.9 percent shooting but managed just 36.4 against a stingy Vols defense. Lamb scored 23 points and Napier finished with 18 points for the Huskies, who got little help from their post players.
The Huskies have lost back-to-back games and three contests on the road this season.
"We're not getting enough on offense. We're not getting enough on defense. There is only so much each person can do," Napier said. "If I knew what the problem was we wouldn't be losing."
Though it was Martin's first time facing Calhoun and Connecticut as a coach, the former Purdue star logged a win as a player in 1992. Martin had chosen Purdue over Calhoun's Huskies out of high school and as a sophomore logged 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal to help the Boilermakers grab a 73-69 win against them.
"He was a great kid and, obviously, he's evolved into a great coach," Calhoun said. "He's done something we haven't done. He's gotten his kids to play hard."