Tennessee held a lead on East Tennessee State for only four minutes and four seconds during Friday night’s 40-minute contest, but the Vols had the advantage when it mattered most.
UT used a late 11-0 run to overcome the Buccaneers (5-6) in a 66-63 victory before a crowd of 16,044 at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols won back-to-back games for the first time since opening the season 2-0.
“It’s a good game for our guys, a headache for me, but they found a way to win the game,” said Vols coach Cuonzo Martin. “The biggest thing is trying to find or solidify the rotation. I don’t think we have five guys that are concrete, so it’s kind of hit and miss.
The Vols had to rally in the second half on Tuesday to beat UNC Asheville 72-68.
Cameron Tatum did most of the hitting Friday, leading the Vols (5-6) with 13 points. Skylar McBee had 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and Kenny Hall added 11 points along with a team-high eight rebounds and two blocked shots.
“Kenny Hall was big in the second half,” Martin said. “He stepped up, got big rebounds, made some big plays and got four offensive rebounds.”
UT starting point guard Trae Golden struggled much of the game, but with the outcome in the balance, the sophomore responded by scoring nine of his 11 points over the final 5 ½ minutes.
Golden’s biggest points came from the free-throw line with 7.9 seconds remaining, when he hit both ends of a one-and-one to put UT up 66-63.
Moments earlier, at the 17.7-second mark, Jordan McRae hit both ends of a one-and-one situation to keep the Vols up three.
Martin said he substituted McRae into the game knowing the sophomore would respond at the free-throw line.
“He’s the fist guy I want on the free-throw line,” Martin said. “He dreams of that shot to knock down those free throws, he was looking forward to that.”
ETSU missed its final chance to send the game into overtime when Adam Sollazzo, who finished with 19 points, missed a 3-pointer with one second left.
Sollazzo, a 6-foot-6 point guard who dished out seven assists and had seven rebounds, put the Bucs up by eight points with 5:36 left.
The Vols responded with five consecutive defensive stops during their 11-0 run.
A Hall dunk with 1:54 left gave UT its second lead of the night, and Golden followed with a steal and dunk in transition with 1:21 left to provide breathing room.
The Vols struggled against the Bucs’ zone and didn’t take their first lead until McBee drained a 3-pointer with 14:35 left to give UT a 42-41 edge.
“It’s my job to make shots,” McBee said. “It’s so much easier playing for Coach Martin; he tells you when you’re open, shoot the ball, so there’s no hesitancy.”
ETSU reclaimed the lead on Sheldon Cooley’s trey from the corner at the 11:30 mark, making it 48-46. The Bucs didn’t trail again until the Vols’ pivotal 11-0 run, which began with a Golden drive and layup with 5:27 left.
East Tennessee State led 33-29 at the half, going up by as many as 11 points at 24-13 when Sollazzo split a pair of free throws at the 8:34 mark.
UT tied the game at 29-29 on a Tatum 3-pointer at the 2:08 mark before ETSU closed the half on a 4-0 run.
The Vols break for the holiday before returning to practice on Monday night. Martin said signee Jarnell Stokes, a 6-8, 255-pound forward, won’t practice with the team until his transcript is approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse. The soonest Stokes would be able to play is after classes start on Jan. 11. Martin said he’ll make sure Stokes is prepared mentally and physically before seeing action.
The Vols return to action Thursday against The Citadel (2-9) at Thompson-Boling Arena. Game time is 7 p.m.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32