Trailing 65-61 with four minutes, 35 seconds remaining, Tennessee found itself in a position that it has yet to succeed in this season.
Tennessee held a 0-5 record this season when trailing with five minutes left entering Tuesday’s contest against ETSU, with the majority of those being tight games.
Rather than adding to the streak, the Vols wiped away the winless mark by reeling off a 15-2 run in the final 3:51 of the game to beat the Buccaneers 76-67 in front of 14,684 inside Thompson-Boling Arena.
“A big part of what we’ve talked about the past couple of weeks is how are we going to close a game,” UT coach Rick Barnes said. “We’ve been in position a number of different places and tonight we closed it like we needed to close it.”
The run started shortly after T.J. Cromer made a layup to give ETSU (5-6) a four-point lead, its largest of the night.
Junior guard Robert Hubbs III got a fastbreak layup and senior forward Armani Moore answered with a mid-range jumper to tie things up at 65-65 with 2:53 left to play.
Senior guard Kevin Punter Jr. made another transition layup to put UT ahead, but ETSU’s Deuce Bello answered with a layup of his own.
After a UT timeout, Punter drove to the basket before kicking a pass out to sophomore guard Detrick Mostella, who sank a three from the corner to start a 9-0 run UT closed the game with.
“As soon as (Punter) passed it I heard him yell out ‘Please!’ and it went in,” Barnes said. “It got answered. … The last couple of games when we’ve needed something, KP hasn’t made that pass. Tonight he did. … That was as good a play as a point guard can make in that situation.”
Mostella’s go-ahead three was the last of his team-high 17 points. In the past two games, the Decatur, Ala., native has scored 30 combined points after scoring 31 total in the Vols’ first nine games.
The spike in play comes shortly after a talk that Barnes had with Mostella after the Butler game on Dec. 12 in which the first-year coach said the guard had reached a “crossroads in his career.”
“I feel like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do and I was going down the wrong path by not practicing hard and taking advantage of what was going on,” Mostella said. “After we had that talk, I felt like this was my time to step up and do everything harder. … I’m just trying to do anything to help the team out.”
Moore (14), Punter (13) and Hubbs (11) joined Mostella in double figures. Ge’Lawn Guyn scored a game-high 22 points, including ETSU’s first 11 in the game.
The Vols (6-5) went into halftime with a nine-point lead, but watched as the Buccaneers took the lead with a 14-3 run to open the second half.
“Well people will look at it and say well you came out flat,” Barnes said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. Sometimes you miss shots, and they start making shots. When you’re up nine points, it’s a three possession game, you talk about a team you know has a couple guys who can make some difficult shots and some threes.”
ETSU’s offense sunk to UT’s level shortly after that, though, as both teams combined to score 14 points in between the 14:38 and 8:07 marks of the period.
Both teams traded the led up until the Vols erased that four-point ETSU advantage and took the lead for good with Mostella’s three.
“I appreciate games like this,” Moore said. “It is always good to go through games likes this early in the season because I feel like this is a great learning experience for our team.”
The Vols will take a break for Christmas before returning to Thompson-Boling Arena to play Tennessee State on Dec. 29 at 1 p.m.