Josh Pastner is too nice a guy to have a doghouse. But Will Coleman had to be wondering midway through the first half of tonight’s game at FedExForum. The 14th-ranked Tigers raced out to a 9-2 lead, then with four minutes gone, Pastner substituted an entire five-man unit for his starters. Yet there sat Will Coleman on the bench, as active as his father, in the stands among the crowd of 15,909.
With just under 11 minutes to play before halftime, though, the senior center with the U of M log tattooed to his left arm rose from his seat to enter the fray. Over the game’s next 25 minutes, Coleman scored a career-high 18 points (and finished with 20, to go with seven rebounds).
“I’ve been really hard on myself with my play,” said Coleman after the game. “I just cooled it, and thought about a lot of things while I was playing. It feels good to go into the Thanksgiving break with this kind of game. It never left, but I’m glad to know I’ve still got it. I’m the same Will who was here last year.” Prior to tonight’s contest, Coleman had scored nine points in four games, giving an ominous symbolism to his uniform number of 0.
One of Coleman’s multiple dunks came on the receiving end of a no-look alley-oop pass from freshman Will Barton, who tied Coleman for team scoring honors while picking up six assists (also a game high, tied with fellow frosh Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford). Jackson finished with 16 points, Welsey Witherspoon had 14, and Angel Garcia scored 15 and grabbed nine rebounds in 17 minutes.
UT-Martin was led by Central High alum Reuben Clayton with 20 points and 10 rebounds. The Skyhawks shot 57 percent in the first half, only to find themselves down 20 points.
Following the game, Pastner didn’t pull any punches in explaining his substitution plan. “Will Coleman has to produce,” he emphasized. “Today, he was the 11th guy. I texted him before the game: you gotta get back to rebounding the ball, blocking shots, catching lob passes, and dunking. Forget everything else; that’s what you’re good at. I told him he was the 11th man, that I can’t justify putting him anywhere else. To his credit, he came in and produced. He’s got to be like that every day.”
Freshman center Tarik Black was limited to six minutes after cutting his shin early in the game. A minor injury, but a contributing factor to Will Coleman playing the way his coach demands.
“Everything happens for a reason,” added Coleman. “When I got in, I made the most of my minutes. After the first dunk, I felt really, really good. It felt different.” When asked if he could embrace coming off the bench, Coleman toed the company line. “If that’s what we need to win, I have no problem with that. I don’t care if I’m a starter or the 29th man off the bench. All we’re trying to accomplish . . . it’s way bigger than me. We’re trying to get a championship, and I truly believe we can get one. Whatever Coach Pastner needs from me, I’m going to give him.”
The Tigers, now 5-0, have a week off before returning to FedExForum for a game with Arkansas State on December 1st.