Finally, Tennessee toughed out a win.
The Vols snapped the program’s first four-game losing streak in almost seven years with Tuesday night’s 72-68 victory over defending Big South Conference champion UNC Asheville at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Tennessee (4-6) showed the type of resolve against the Bulldogs (6-5) that first-year coach Cuonzo Martin has been preaching and angling for.
“It was the first time I’ve really seen it all year where guys really got after it,’’ said Martin, whose team was 0-6 this season in games decided by 10 points or less heading into the night. “For some reason our guys get somewhat consumed with how they look instead of just playing hard and getting after it, getting down and dirty; that’s the style I’m accustomed to.’’
The Vols trailed by 11 points in the first half and were down by 10 with 15:40 left to play before senior Cameron Tatum heated up during a pivotal 11-2 run with less than 10 minutes remaining before an announced crowd of 15,324.
“I didn’t even know we were winning when I hit that (go-ahead) shot,’’ said Tatum, referring to his 3-pointer with 7:41 left that capped the run and gave the Vols a 56-55 lead, their first advantage since going up 2-0 off the opening tip. “It was just doing whatever it takes to win and being hungry. We couldn’t go down five straight games.’’
UT senior Renaldo Woolridge matched his career high with 17 points, tying Tatum for the team’s scoring honors. Kenny Hall had 12 points and a career-high three blocked shots.
Jeronne Maymon had 10 points and 13 rebounds to record his first double-double since his monster 32-point, 20-rebound effort in the Vols’ 99-97 double-overtime loss to Memphis in the EA Sports Maui Invitational on Nov. 22.
“I just told the team at the half, ‘we can’t lose this game,’ ” said Maymon, who played only five minutes in the first half after picking up his second foul at the 15:33 mark. “I said, ‘We gotta pick it up, man, we’ve worked too hard, and we’re not losing this game.’ ”
Maymon’s teammates backed up those words, at one point, stopping Asheville from scoring on seven consecutive possessions in the second half.
Senior J.P. Primm led the Bulldogs with 25 points but missed a critical free throw with 23.5 seconds left that would have tied the game.
UT point guard Trae Golden, playing with a broken nose suffered in Friday’s practice, was fouled at the other end and hit two free throws to put the Vols up 71-68 with 16.6 seconds left.
Bulldogs guard Matt Dickey missed a forced 3-pointer, and Skylar McBee was fouled on the ensuing possession and split a pair of free throws with 8.1 seconds left to ice the win.
While Tatum provided steady scoring in the second half, getting 14 of his points over the final 20 minutes, Woolridge entered with Maymon in foul trouble and scored 13 points in the first half.
“I’ve had a good week of practice, and really, it was just letting it fly tonight,’’ said Woolridge, whose previous career high was 14 points, most recently in the Vols’ 76-68 win over No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10, 2010. “Coach Martin told me if I’m open to shoot it.’’
Tatum, like Woolridge, broke from a slump, having hit only one of 12 shots in the two previous games.
“The only thing that changed was Coach Martin called me one night and said, ‘don’t worry about your shot, it will come,’ ” Martin said. “Him telling me that gave me the confidence I needed.’’
The Vols bring their newfound momentum and confidence back to the court at 7 p.m. on Friday at Thompson-Boling Arena in a non-televised game against East Tennessee State (5-5).
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32