I think at this point all of us have eliminated any thoughts in our heads that Tennessee is going to run over all of these mid-major teams, especially an experienced favorite in their conference like the one we saw tonight. So while we certainly would've taken a blowout win to rid ourselves of this four game losing streak, the way the Vols won tonight - coming from behind, relying on a number of different players, and using defense to cut the lead - showed this team is capable of demonstrating the traits that will be most important to their future success.
UNC-Asheville jumped the Vols early, shooting 80something percent from the floor for the first quarter of the ballgame. Tennessee made several mini-runs, led by Renaldo Woolridge off the bench. Swiperboy hit three threes and finished with a career high 17 points in 22 minutes. It may not show up on the stat sheet, but Tennessee also got a lift from Wes Washpun in the first half with his play on both ends of the floor, especially with Trae Golden struggling to a 1 for 8 finish.
We thought after the first two games that the Vols would go as Golden went. But tonight proved UT can survive an off night from their point guard. Tennessee was also helped by 14 turnovers from UNC-Asheville, most of them in the first half.
Still, a three point Asheville halftime lead quickly escalated back to nine with 14:35 to play, and was still at eight with 10:04 to go. But then the three ball came back around Tennessee's way: the Vols hit threes on three straight possessions to finally retake the lead at 56-55 at the under eight timeout. When Asheville didn't go away, neither did Tennessee: the lead changed hands four times in the next three minutes, before another Cameron Tatum three gave the Vols the lead for good at 61-59 with 5:08 to go.
It wasn't over, and the Vols could've done better than 60% at the line to help their own cause. But on the three occasions that Asheville cut the lead back to one, Tennessee responded immediately, and Golden did it all: he made his only bucket to put the Vols up three at 3:38, then hit three of four free throws down the stretch to keep the Bulldogs at bay.
The three ball will get the credit, but it was the play of Jeronne Maymon that sparked the second half surge. Maymon, who sat most of the first half with two fouls, still finished with a double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds. This time the Vols didn't forget about him in the second half or when the opponent went zone, and the same goes for Kenny Hall who had 12 points.
But it was the seniors tonight who made the difference: Woolridge looked as good as he played, draining threes and playing exceptionally smooth around the rim. And Tatum finished with 17 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and zero turnovers. The Vols don't win without either of them.
What also made the difference: defense.
Cuonzo Martin's calling card showed up in a big way tonight. It certainly didn't look that way when Asheville got off to such a hot start, but in the second half Tennessee held the Bulldogs without a field goal from 14:35 to 5:28. That's impressive regardless of opponent, and was a critical component in UT cutting and eventually taking the lead. We've assumed all along that UT's defense would get better the longer Cuonzo was involved, and tonight we really saw it for the first time. That's the biggest sign of encouragement going forward.
This team will continue to be at its best when it gets Maymon involved, but there could also be a strong "who steps up tonight?" quality with these Vols. It was Woolridge tonight; we saw Dwight Miller do the same in the first half at Charleston. The best players will show consistency, a group that should include Maymon, Tatum, and hopefully Golden and McRae...but tonight the Vols got zero points in only ten minutes from McRae (defense?) and plenty of struggle from Golden...but still got it done against an experience, hot-shooting Asheville team that could go on to win the Big South.
Winning cures all things, and the Vols will be back at it Friday night against ETSU to hopefully continue this momentum. But tonight proved the Vols can battle back from adversity and use defense to do so, which is what we thought the identity of this team would be. If the Vols keep fighting and keep growing, this team can still have some good basketball in front of them.