The game followed a familiar script - Vols open a double digit lead in the first 25 minutes, other team comes rolling back in the next 10 - but in the final possessions, this time Tennessee was able to execute. A match-up of two of the bottom teams in the league in defense was overshadowed by whistles at times, but turned pretty good in the final three minutes.
Turnovers had hurt the Vols in late game situations before, and Craig Sword cashed in a pair of free throws after a steal to draw the Bulldogs within three with 3:03 to go. Mississippi State again brought pressure on Kevin Punter, who played all 40 minutes today. With the shot clock winding down and a crowded Punter unable to get a shot, he kept the ball long enough for Devon Baulkman to flash open underneath, risk a pump fake with the shot clock about to expire, and score to put the Vols back up five. A tough two by Robert Hubbs (of which there were several today) pushed the lead back to seven on the next possession. The Bulldogs still wouldn't go away, as Quinndary Weatherspoon made a pair of threes around a Punter score. Setting up their press with less than a minute to go, Mississippi State looked like they had Hubbs in trouble...but then he split a double team and found Detrick Mostella, who scored to put the Vols up five with 41 seconds to play. MSU would never get back within one possession as the Vols made enough free throws to ice it, winning 80-75.
There are a bunch of names in that paragraph in an effort that took everyone to earn Tennessee's first road win of the year. Today everyone did not include Armani Moore, who was banged up at the end of the Georgia game and didn't play at all today. That meant Punter's 40 minutes but also included both Ray Kasongo and walk-on Brad Woodson getting minutes in Starkville.
It was another tough day scoring for freshman Admiral Schofield (0 for 3), but the Vols got 23 from Punter (including 8 of 8 at the line), and a strong 10 of 14 combined from Hubbs and Baulkman. But the big story was Mostella, with a career high 24 points on 8 of 17 shooting, 5 of 11 from the three point line. I'm not sure how many times someone other than Punter has led the team in scoring this year, but I'd imagine I'd only need one hand. He knocked down a number of key shots in the second half to keep a couple of made baskets by MSU from turning into legitimate runs. His development this season has to be one of the biggest early feathers in Rick Barnes' cap.
This would have been a big win with Armani Moore, but without him it's an impressive one. Tennessee gets back above .500 at 9-8 and goes to 2-3 in SEC play with a big week ahead as Vanderbilt and #19 South Carolina will visit Knoxville.