We thought we would see a bunch of threes, and apparently Asheville got the memo. So as the Bulldogs took away most of Tennessee's open perimeter looks and the Vols struggled to just 4 of 16 from the arc, the home team had to find another way to win.
That adjustment came, especially in the second half, in getting good looks inside the arc. The Vols had some tough finishes at the rim, but also knocked down a significant number of 5-10 footers on pull-ups. Tennessee shot 52.6% from the floor, led by Kevin Punter's 31 points on 10 of 14. And, as Rick Barnes pointed out on his postgame radio show, when the Vols wanted to press the attack even more in the game's crucial final minutes, they put the ball in the hands of Armani Moore. You can already see Moore turning into a J.P. Prince kind of option for this team, doing a little bit of everything: 12 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists to lead the team, a pair of blocks and a steal in 29 minutes. Punter is still getting used to being the primary ball-handler, but Moore looked like a natural at crucial junctures in being the primary attacker.
The most crucial juncture came when an 8-0 Asheville run tied the game with 6:56 to play. The tying bucket became the first of seven consecutive possessions with a score. Tennessee answered when Jabari McGhee drew a foul on the following possession's third offensive rebound. The Vols are small, but there is hope they can improve in a number of areas and rebounding on the backside is certainly one of them. But credit Tennessee for turning a -10 rebounding deficit at halftime into only a -3 finish.
When a Detrick Mostella turnover ended the scoring streak, Asheville took the lead 65-63 with 4:56 to go. Then we had ten straight scoring possessions, meaning 17 of 18 possessions ended in points from the 6:56 mark to 1:27. Are you not entertained?
With a third coach in three years and little expected of it, Tennessee could have folded on any number of those possessions against a hungry Asheville team. Instead, the Vols kept answering the bell. Robert Hubbs scored on consecutive possessions. Armani Moore added two free throws, then an and-one. And Kevin Punter's two free throws put the Vols ahead 74-72 with 1:48 to go.
Tennessee needed a stop, and wasn't able to get them previously thanks in large part to Asheville's Will Weeks. The Bulldogs' biggest body on the floor was giving Derek Reese a tough time, scoring 11 of his eventual 25 points during this 18 possession stretch. Again, Tennessee made a play: Robert Hubbs slid over and made an incredible block on Weeks. Tennessee ran to the other end of the floor and Punter scored to give the Vols a precious two possession lead.
Back underneath the basket a scary scene unfolded for several minutes, with Robert Hubbs down and grabbing his leg. His landing on the block didn't look great, and everyone in the building feared the worst when he tried to walk off on his own power but eventually had to be carried off. So getting the two possession lead and the eventual win was good news, but the postgame revelation that Hubbs merely had severe cramps was great news.
HUGE news for #Vols: Rick Barnes said Robert Hubbs just suffered a leg cramp. Take a deep breath, Tennessee.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) November 14, 2015
There were a few deep breaths left in the game, but Tennessee made four of its final six free throws (including two by Jabari McGhee, who was last seen shooting 41.2% at the line in 2014-15) and survived a game Asheville squad to make Rick Barnes 1-0, 82-78.
There is much to work on. Asheville shot 44.6% from the floor, and plenty of teams on Tennessee's schedule will have more of an answer defensively for what the Vols want to do inside the arc. Kevin Punter played 35 minutes, and that may just be par for the course (it was for Richardson last year). The Vols, who will get Ray Kasongo eligible Monday night against Georgia Tech, got 15 minutes from Shembari Phillips, 10 from Admiral Schofield (who did grab four rebounds), and five from Kyle Alexander. McGhee was the most pleasant surprise off the bench with nine points and six boards. But how the rotation shakes out and if the Vols can get help for Punter and/or a stronger presence inside will be key questions going forward.
But on a night when the Vols shot just 25% from the arc and thought briefly they'd lost one of their best players for the year, Tennessee answered the challenge on crucial possession after crucial possession offensively and got Rick Barnes off to a good start.
Round two comes Monday night at Georgia Tech.