This wasn't Tennessee's best night. The Vols shot 36.7% from the floor, 29.4% from the arc, and 62.1% from the line. Bunnies aplenty were left around the rim. And Kevin Punter, who came in tenth nationally in scoring at 23.0 points per game, was saddled with foul trouble early in both halves and finished with just nine points.
In lots of ways it felt like this just wasn't going to be Tennessee's night. ETSU is always feisty and everyone in the building has respect for Steve Forbes. It would have hurt, and it would have stayed with Tennessee's RPI all year, but it wouldn't have been the strangest thing in the world for the Vols to lose this game as it unfolded.
ETSU led 65-61 with four minutes to play and had the ball. And then, all of a sudden, it became Tennessee's night.
A 6-0 run featured baskets by Robert Hubbs, Armani Moore, and Kevin Punter. ETSU hit a wild runner to tie the game again 67-67, then both teams missed a three. Rick Barnes signaled for a timeout with 1:11 to play and set up a call for the game's surprise hero.
Detrick Mostella played really well against Gonzaga Saturday night, but few of us saw it since most of his best work in Seattle was done after midnight in East Tennessee. But in front of a nice Christmas week crowd in Knoxville and however many others watching on SEC Network+, Mostella finished with 14 points and 4 assists off the bench. He was 0 of 4 from the arc when Barnes called his number one more time in the final minute. And this time he splashed one from the corner to put the Vols ahead 70-67.
From there the Vols stepped up the pressure and ETSU folded. The Bucs turned it over on their next two possessions, the first created by Devon Baulkman with pressure at the half-court line leading to a score for Kevin Punter, and the second effectively ending the threat. Tennessee went on to win by nine, betraying how close this game was throughout the second half. And the Vols played so well in the final four minutes, closing on a 15-2 run, it will make many of us forget how much they struggled in the prior sixteen.
Tonight was a good night though: for Rick Barnes' squad to struggle and still win against a capable and motivated opponent, and to do it by means other than Kevin Punter going off is a good sign. The Vols may not be good enough to get away with those shooting percentages against better competition, but tonight's win can build character that will serve Tennessee well regardless of opponent. The Vols go to 6-5 and will return to action a week from tonight against 9-3 Tennessee State, their final non-conference test before SEC play. Hats off for a gritty win and a great close tonight.