Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall says stats show his teams win 82 percent of the time when the opponent launches at least 40 percent of its shots from 3-point range. ETSU was happy to oblige Wednesday at Thompson-Boling Arena, draining 13 treys en route to a 56-52 lead with 9:39 left.
That’s when Tennessee’s tenacity – coupled with some Buccaneer fatigue – radically changed the complexion of the game. Holding the visitors without a basket for more than eight minutes, the Vols closed the game on a 19-5 run to turn the four-point deficit into a 71-61 victory.
The win, Tennessee’s fourth in a row, gives the Vols an 8-4 record heading into next Wednesday’s SEC opener at Mississippi State. Despite leading for 22 of the game’s 40 minutes, ETSU slips to 6-4.
“I thought our guys did a nice job tonight of withstanding their runs,” Tyndall said. “Every time they made a big bucket or what could have been a deflating 3-pointer, our guys kept their heads up and kept grinding.”
Meanwhile, ETSU kept launching 3-pointers. The undersized Bucs fired 66.7 percent of their shots (32 of 48) from beyond the arc. But, as Tyndall has noted previously, teams that shoot a lot of 3s typically get few free-throw opportunities and even fewer offensive rebounds. That was the case in this game: The Bucs attempted just nine foul shots and recorded a mere three offensive rebounds.
Basically, this was a typical Tennessee win: Fall behind early, play spotty for 30 minutes, then control the final 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the Bucs made the game interesting by sticking to what they do best – bombing from behind the arc.
As Tyndall put it: "We told our guys for three or four days: ‘Look, they're the second-best 3-point shooting club in America, so don't be surprised when they shoot it from 26 feet. That's what they do. Don't be surprised when they shoot it off one pass. That's what they do.’”
Tennessee's Josh Richardson suggested ETSU’s success from 3 was more a discredit to the Vols than a credit to the Bucs.
"We have to start playing defense smarter,” he said. “We went over all their sets in practice, then acted like we had never seen it before."
Tyndall scheduled the Bucs as a financial favor to their coach, good friend Murry Bartow. Bartow showed his appreciation by opening the game in a man-to-man defense that shocked the Vols and enabled ETSU to build a quick 13-0 lead. At this point ETSU had made 4 of 5 field-goal tries (3 of 4 from 3) and 2 of 2 foul shots.
A 3-pointer from the right wing by Kevin Punter gave Tennessee its first lead of the game at 22-20 with around 7½ minutes left in the half. Six consecutive points by Derek Reese fueled an 8-2 spurt that bumped the Vol lead a 32-25 but Reyshawn Rembert drained a pair of 3s as the Bucs closed to 32-31 at the half.
Knoxville native Lester Wilson nailed a couple of treys to put the Bucs back on top, then Jalen Riley made back-to-back 3s to give the visitors their 56-52 lead and, seemingly, a lot of momentum.
That’s when Tennessee amped up its energy and clamped down its defense.
Robert Hubbs opened the comeback with a 3-pointer. A Reese layup gave the Vols the lead for good at 57-56. Armani Moore made a free throw, then Reese and Robert Hubbs sank 15-footers. Moore scored inside off an inbounds play to cap a 12-0 spurt that turned the 52-56 deficit into a 64-56 Vol lead with 3:30 remaining. Tennessee made 7 of 12 foul shots down the stretch to seal the deal.
Richardson accompanied his game-high 19 points with 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 3 steals. Moore flirted with a triple-double before finishing with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. Reese hit 5 of 6 shots en route to 12 points in a career-high 32 minutes. Carmichael contributed 9 points and 7 rebounds. Hubbs chipped in 8 points and 4 assists.
Rembert finished 7 of 12 from the field (7 of 11 beyond the arc) and scored 21 points for ETSU. He got just three of those points in the second half, however.
"We didn't do anything differently,” Bartow said. “They (Vols) got smarter in terms of their coverage, and he just didn't get the looks. We ran the same stuff in the first 21 minutes as we did in the final 19. They covered him closer and didn't allow as many clean looks. He got open in the first half, but they didn't let that happen in the second half."
Wilson added 16 points for ETSU. Riley went 2 for 12 from the field and managed just 9 points, 10 below his season’s average.
Tennessee’s shooting was solid – 50 percent (26 of 52) from the field, 33.3 percent (5 of 15 from 3) and 66.7 percent (14 of 21) from the foul line. ETSU shot a pedestrian 41.7 from the field but made 40.6 percent (13 of 32) from 3 and 88.9 percent (8 of 9) from the foul line.
Basically, the Vols won the game by posting a season high for assists (19), controlling the backboards (38-20) and dominating the points in the paint (38-14).
“We're ecstatic to be 8-4 … 4-0 in this little home-stand,” Tyndall said. “We thought that was very, very important to do."