Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes (5) tries to block a shot by Texas A&M guard Alex Caruso during their game Jan. 11 in Knoxville.(AP Photo/ Knoxville News Sentinel)
KNOXVILLE — Perhaps a visit from one of the greatest players in Tennessee basketball history can provide a spark for the Volunteers as they attempt to recover from their most crushing loss of the season.
Hall of Famer Bernard King was on campus Tuesday before heading to Memphis to receive the National Civil Rights Sports Legacy Award next week. King, who starred for Tennessee from 1974-77, watched the Vols practice Tuesday and plans to attend their game Wednesday against Auburn (8-5, 0-2 Southeastern Conference).
King said he talks or exchanges text messages with Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin “from time to time.” He watched Tennessee’s stunning 57-56 loss to Texas A&M on television Saturday.
“This is a special arena,” King said while standing on the Thompson-Boling Arena floor before Tuesday’s practice. “I wish I had the chance to play in this place when we were here, when Ernie (Grunfeld) and I were here.”
Tennessee (10-5, 1-1) blew a 14-point halftime lead in a loss to Texas A&M that snapped a four-game winning streak and left the Vols with little margin for error in their NCAA tournament hopes. Tennessee led virtually the entire way before giving up Antwan Space’s game-winning 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds remaining.
“We can’t just dwell on a loss like that,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. “You’ve got to move forward, especially in the SEC. Games come so fast. You’ve just got to move forward and go on to the next.”
Martin remains optimistic. He believes the Vols have played some of their best defense over the past five games. He doesn’t want one bad half to overshadow the progress Tennessee made the last few weeks.
“Overall I think we’re solid and I like where we are,” Martin said. “(We) just have to tighten up some screws here and there.”
That includes taking better care of the ball. Tennessee has averaged just 10.1 turnovers per game overall — tied for the 16th fewest among all Division I schools — but the Vols are averaging a league-high 16 turnovers per game in SEC competition.
The Vols also have a penchant for missing free throws in their losses. Tennessee led 56-54 on Saturday when Jeronne Maymon missed two free throws with 17 seconds remaining. Tennessee has made 61 percent of its free throws (75-of-123) in its five losses and has shot 73.8 percent from the line (189-of-256) in its 10 wins.
Tennessee’s fortunes continue to rest largely on how well junior forward Jarnell Stokes is playing. Stokes had six points, five rebounds and four turnovers against Texas A&M. He is averaging 16 points per game in UT's wins and 8.2 points per game in the Vols’ losses.
Tennessee will try to recover against an Auburn team that lost its first two SEC games by a combined total of five points. Auburn boasts the conference's top two scorers in KT Harrell (19.3 points per game) and Chris Denson (19.1).
“We have been playing extremely hard these last couple of games,” Harrell said. “We just have to work on finishing and executing late in games. I think if we do that, we will win most of our games.”
Tennessee will try a similar approach.
“It’s just a loss,” Vols guard Josh Richardson said. “We can come back (Wednesday) and redeem ourselves.”
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