Tennessee (6-5) got by ETSU (5-6) 76-67 on Tuesday evening in Thompson-Boling Arena in front of an announced crowd 14,684 in this pre-Christmas showndown between East Tennessee teams. Here are five observations from the win for the Vols:
1. Huge finish saves the day: This has been a team of runs all season and Tuesday night was no exception. Tennessee got its big run at the perfect time against the Buccaneers – right at the end. The Vols finished on a 15-2 run over the final 3:51 of the game and a 9-0 run over the last 1:01. “A big part of what we have talked about the last couple of weeks is how we are going to close the game,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said after the game. “We have been in position in a number of different places. Tonight, we closed it the way we needed to close it. We scored 6 out of 7 baskets at the end of the game. We stayed in zone a little bit trying to protect [Kevin Punter]. We went small. That is the first time this year that line-up has ever been on the floor together. I thought they did some really good things. I just loved the fire we competed with there at the end. It was really a good win for us.”
2. Mostella has his moment: You could see the confidence building in Detrick Mostella over the past couple games and he had somewhat of a breakout performance on Tuesday, matching his career high with 17 points while adding four assists and two rebounds. He was clutch as well – knocking home a 3-pointer with 1:01 left in the game to give the Vols a 70-67 lead, setting up a strong final minute. “He’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the fact is, he’s really trying,” Barnes said of Mostella. “He’s trying as hard as he can defensively. We’ve gotten on him about his shooting, because he doesn’t practice the way he gets up his shot in the game. The last week and a half, his whole mindset in practice is what’s helped him come out and play the way he’s playing.”
3. Vols survive without Punter at his best: Kevin Punter has been so consistent that it’s been easy to wonder if UT would ever get in a situation where he would’t be carrying much of the scoring load this season. That night finally did arrive on Tuesday, and though Punter wasn’t awful, his second-half foul trouble and some cold shooting in stretches left UT looking for some help from others on the offensive end. The Vols got just enough, with Mostella matching his career high and Armani Moore (14), Robert Hubbs III (11) and Devon Baulkman (8) all stepping up at times and hitting some big shots for the Vols. Punter managed to help in other ways, contributing eight rebounds and five assists.
4. Alexander gets the start: Freshman forward Kyle Alexander got his first career start after showing improvement over the past couple games as well. He didn’t put up huge numbers (5 points, 2 rebounds), though Barnes sees his confidence continuing to grow. “After the Butler game, he was gosh-awful, and he knows it,” Barnes said. “He came back, and we said to him, ‘There’s no more excuses now. You wanted this. Here it is. Now you have to go get it.’ He works. He’s one of the last guys to leave practice everyday. He’s going to be a terrific player. He’ll be a different player in 30 days. Watch how he grows in the next 30 days by what he’s getting right here. More than anything, he’s starting to see it a little bit quicker. That’s what he’s got to do, catch up with the speed of the game.”
5. Protecting home court: It wasn’t always pretty – it was quite ugly, in fact, during some stretches of the second half – but Tennessee found a way to protect its home court against a well-coached ETSU team. This is a Bucs team that knocked off Georgia Tech, a team UT lost to, earlier this year, so this was certainly a challenge. Tennessee moves to 6-0 at home this year with one more home contest against TSU (Dec. 29) before the beginning of SEC play.
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) December 23, 2015