Vols host ETSU

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You can't build a championship-caliber basketball team in 15 days but you can build some confidence and some momentum. That's the task facing Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, starting with tonight's 7:05 tipoff versus East Tennessee State University (5-5).

Coming off a 72-68 defeat of UNC Asheville that snapped a four-game losing streak, his Vols desperately need to gain some traction as they move toward the start of league play. Winning their four remaining pre-conference games — ETSU, The Citadel (Dec. 29), Chattanooga (Jan. 2) and at Memphis (Jan. 4) — would give the 4-6 Vols an 8-6 record and a five-game winning streak heading into the Jan. 7 SEC opener against Florida.

"This stretch is very important," junior Jeronne Maymon said. "When you're winning everything is easier: Your shots are more fluid, your offense flows more and your defense is more cohesive. These next few games are very important for our season."

Senior Renaldo Woolridge echoed those sentiments.

"They mean a lot to us," he said. "Now is the start. You're only as good as your last game. We're hoping to go on a winning streak because that's what we need. It's early in the season, so I'm glad we had this type of stuff (four-game skid) happening early."

After noting that "Winning is what it's all about," senior Cameron Tatum said the Vols lost more than games during the four-game skid. They lost their positive outlook, too.

"When you're losing you start losing your confidence, not only as an individual but as a team," he said. "When you're winning, you've still got that swagger, that confidence. You feel like everything you shoot is going in.

"Once we get on a win streak things will start falling into place. We'll start being more aggressive and playing smarter basketball. When we were losing you start playing dumb basketball, doing stuff that's out of our character. You've just got to stick to the script and keep plugging."

Losing begets losing, partly because losing teams tend to become tentative. Martin touched on this theme following the UNC Asheville game, and his players concede the point.

"Yeah, you start to play not to lose, instead of just playing the game," Tatum said. "You're worrying about things you shouldn't be worrying about. That's one thing Coach Martin always tries to stress to us."

The Vols played tentatively against UNC Asheville for 30 minutes but found their poise in time to win with a big finish. In retrospect, that may prove to be the turning point of the season.

"We needed the win tremendously," junior center Kenny Hall said. "It felt real good to get over the hump, and now we need to keep it rolling."

Tatum agreed, noting: "We had a little skid going but we finally pulled one off when we needed it. Hopefully, we can reel off some more going into the holiday break."

Ditto for Woolridge.

"This was a great confidence boost, a good win at home against a good team," he said. "Everybody played well and contributed. Everybody fought to the end. That's big. We were down but this showed that if you fight to the end you can come out on top."

Maymon said the Vols were down emotionally, as well as on the scoreboard, during the UNC Asheville game.

"Since we were on a four-game losing streak it was kind of hard to keep our energy up, to keep our morale where it should be," he said. "I think that win really helped us get back to Tennessee basketball."

The lift provided by the come-from-behind victory against UNC Asheville will be only temporary, however, if the Vols fail to follow up tonight.

"The win definitely got our morale back up where it needs to be, got our heads up and got us pointed in the right direction," Maymon said. "Now we have to continue to reel 'em off."

NOTES: ETSU head man Murry Bartow was 2-0 against Tennessee as a player at Alabama Birmingham, helping beat Don DeVoe's Vols 84-66 in the 1983 Rainbow Classic and 70-65 in the 1984 Great Alaska Shootout. Murry's father, Gene, coached those UAB teams after previously guiding programs at Valparaiso, Memphis, Illinois and UCLA.... ETSU is 2-12 in the all-time series with Tennessee but both wins occurred at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Bucs beat Wade Houston's Vols 83-70 in 1989 and 87-79 in 1991.... Tennessee stands 30-8 in games against in-state Div. I programs going back to the 2005-06 season but dropped its last one, bowing 74-70 to Austin Peay on Dec. 10.... ETSU's starting lineup projects to be 6-8 Isiah Brown (12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds per game), 6-6 Adam Sollazzo (13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists), 6-4 Tommy Hubbard (9.7 points, 6.2 rebounds), 6-3 Sheldon Cooley (7.7 points) and 6-2 Jarvis Jones (6.4 points).... Tonight's game will not be televised but is available free via live audio stream at UTsports.com.

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