Jan. 27, 2012
BY JOHN PAINTER
The calendar read Valentine's Day 1987, but 25 years ago in Tennessee basketball history turned out to be a great night for wizards.
Tony White, The Wizard of Big Orange Country, scored 51 points that Saturday evening to lead the Vols to a 103-84 win over Auburn while breaking the UT game scoring mark that had stood for 20 years.
This Saturday, the Vols again host Auburn (6 p.m., ESPN2) as White's record nears its silver anniversary.
"I can't believe it's been 25 years," White said. "I remember most of all that we won the game. Once the ball went in the first couple of times, the whole gym just lit up.
"I was shooting the ball pretty well and everything was going great for me. Everything."
Before White, Ron Widby owned Tennessee's game scoring record thanks to a 50-point performance against LSU on March 4, 1967. Since then, Ernie Grunfeld, Bernard King and Reggie Johnson all had come within shouting distance with 43-point games, and King owned four other outings of 40 or more.
White himself nearly reached the elusive 50-point milestone earlier in the 1986-87 season when he scored 49 against Florida State at the Citrus Bowl Classic in Orlando.
"After that, I never thought I'd reach the peak again," he said.
In fact, White remembers he might have been looking more forward to the next day and celebrating his 22nd birthday.
"I was psyched that my birthday was the next day," White said. "But it was Valentine's Day and I had gotten a couple of cards and everything, I just felt good."
And so the celebrations started one night early.
White opened Tennessee's scoring with a 10-footer in the lane just 28 seconds into the game. He tallied 12 of Tennessee's first 23 points by midway through the period, but the Vols still had not led. That changed when White hit consecutive 3-pointers near the seven-minute mark to push UT in front, 33-29.
By the halftime break, White had exploded for 29 points on 11-of-15 field goals, a perfect 3-of-3 from 3-point land and another 4-of-4 on free throws. The Vols were on top, 54-42.
"Sonny Smith was the Auburn coach and he ran a box-and-one on me the whole night," White recalled. "They knew what was going on but I just had the ball in my hand that night all the time. Fred Jenkins and the rest of the players did a great job of feeding me, a great job."
White attempted only five field goals in the second half, making four, but did his damage at the free-throw line. The Wizard made 14-of-15 from the stripe after intermission.
With 10:38 to go, White caught an elbow on the side of his face from Auburn's Frank Ford. It wasn't intentional and White wasn't hurt, but the Vols guard not only left the game but left the arena playing floor as well.
"I got hit in my eye and my contact lens came out," White said. "I had to go get another one."
White missed three minutes of game action and seemed to have suffered a serious momentum kill. Time was running out and he was 10 points to Widby. Reaching 50 wasn't going to be easy.
He didn't score again - didn't even attempt a shot! - until completing a three-point play with only 1:31 remaining that made it 93-75, Vols. Still needing seven points to tie the mark, White suddenly got a boost from an unlikely source.
"It was funny because Auburn kept fouling me," he said. "We were up and we were in the 1-and-1 (no double-bonus back then). Auburn was trying to get the ball and couldn't, so they just kept fouling me over and over."
White made two free throws with 50 seconds left for 45 points, two more on a 1-and-1 with 25 seconds to play for 47, and then converted yet another 1-plus-the-bonus with 12 seconds left.
He was at 49 points - again. And Auburn had possession.
"The atmosphere was just great," White said of the closing seconds with 11,442 going crazy. "It was overwhelming. You can't describe it. And Stokely was one of the greatest places to play.
"It was one of those nights where everybody was willing and pushing you to break the record. It was very exciting."
Two swishes later, The Wizard had The Record.
"My teammates were really pushing for me to break the record that night," said White, who was carried off the floor by the UT players after his record-setting free throws. "They knew what was going on. The assistant coaches were telling the players and during timeouts, they were telling me I was close to the record and they were going to keep me in the game.
"They wanted me to break the record."
The Charlotte, N.C., native ended his collegiate career second on the UT scoring list with 2,219 points, trailing Grunfeld's total of 2,249 by a mere 30 points. Twenty-five years later, White still stands sixth on the SEC's all-time list.
His head coach, Don DeVoe, knew White was a special talent.
"He was one of the most prolific scorers I ever coached and, as I reflect back on it, so deceptive," DeVoe said. "You looked at him and from a physical standpoint, he was the least imposing guy you probably ever would face as a Division I basketball player.
"He could use the glass and he was, obviously, an excellent free throw shooter. He was really and truly one of the all-time great scorers at Tennessee."
"They asked me and I felt proud to come in and do that," White said. "It's something I would have appreciated more when I played if guys like Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King would have spoken to us.
"I told them to go out there, enjoy themselves and play hard. That's all."
White has some experience giving pep talks, although they haven't always been to Tennessee's benefit. He has had the pleasure of watching sons Tony Jr. with College of Charleston in 2009 and Ronrico with Chattanooga earlier this season compete in Thompson-Boling Arena against his alma mater.
"Those were very proud and enjoyable experiences for me," White said.
White can't stop shaking his head in disbelief at how his 51-point game has stood the Tennessee test of time. Only Allan Houston has come close, scoring 43 against LSU back in 1990.
White says he will be ready and gracious when his mark is broken, just like the previous record-holder was to him 25 years ago.
"Ron Widby called and congratulated me," he said. "He was surprised the record had stood for so long, just like right now I'm surprised that with all the talented players who have played for Tennessee my record is still standing."
Call it an annual Valentine's Day and birthday present to The Wizard of Big Orange Country.