KNOXVILLE — Kenny Hall might have been the last Tennessee Volunteer any of the 15,215 basketball fans inside Thompson-Boling Arena on Thursday would have wanted at the foul line late in a tie game.
A marginal 59 percent free-throw shooter for his career, the 6-foot-9 senior from Stone Mountain, Ga., was hitting just 52 percent at the stripe this season when fouled by Wichita State with 3:10 to go.
But Hall does believe free throws are important, especially for a team that's averaged 37 points in its last two outings, both of them losses.
That's not an average of 37 free throws. That's game scoring. As in a 37-36 loss to Georgetown on the last day of November and a 46-38 loss at Virginia five days later.
"That's made free throws even more important," Hall said. "It's like they say, they're free points. And we need every one. So I take them very seriously. I practice them every day. I practice them a lot."
This time practice made perfect. Hall swished the first one. Then he swished the second. UT led by two. The previously undefeated Shockers would score only one more point the rest of the game. The Vols -- despite not hitting a field goal in the final 5:55 -- ultimately won 69-60, their fifth win in eight games.
"We made 80 percent of our free throws (29 of 36), which is good," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. "We did a good job in the paint getting post feeds and paint touches and being assertive, which is great for us."
Hall was mostly assertive at the foul line. He hit all four of his free throws in scoring four points, pulling down four rebounds and making off with a steal. He didn't attempt a single shot from the floor.
But it was the timing of the second two foul shots that made an impression on Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, whose team fell to 9-1.
"We'd just gotten the lead back, then they'd tied it, I think," he said. "At that point in the game, with two teams that play defense like these two do, every point is huge. Those were big shots he hit."
At the end of last season no one was sure Hall would be around to so much as attempt a free throw this winter. He was suspended by Martin for the Vols' final nine games for conduct detrimental to the team.
Was he worried Martin would fail to reinstate him?
"Not really," he said. "We never stopped talking. But it's always in the back of my mind. I hurt my team; I hurt my family; I hurt myself. I think every day now what a blessing it is to still be able to play the game I love."
His teammates love having him back to play, especially with Jeronne Maymon still sidelined with a knee injury that may not be completely healed until January.
"You could just see the fire in Kenny's eyes tonight," Maymon said. "He gets better out there every night. You can see how much he wants to be the leader of this team."
Martin is this team's leader. He sets the tone. He calls the shots. He makes decisions great and small every day both on the court and off that have this program headed toward greatness.
Asked about the Vols' offensively challenged team, Marshall -- who faced Martin in the Missouri Valley Conference when Martin coached at Missouri State -- said of his opponent's style:
"They defended like this, but they shot it better," he said. "Cuonzo had more snipers there, and he'll have more here. But this is probably the best defensive team we'll play all year."
But for snipers such as Skylar McBee, Trae Golden and Jordan McRae to find the space they need to riddle defenses, Maymon needs to return. Until then, every shot -- free or otherwise -- will be one of wills and thrills.
"Kenny's free throws were huge," said Golden, who led the Vols with 25 points and five assists. "We really needed this game. Hitting those free throws, it just shows that when we need him, he's going to be there."
As he left the locker room late Thursday after receiving treatment for a sore hamstring, Hall was asked what advice he gives younger Vols concerning the mistakes he made a year ago.
"Keep your nose clean," he said. "Do the right thing at all times."
And practice your free throws.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...