Rick Barnes strode onto the court inside Thompson-Boling Arena Friday night wearing his third shade of orange as a head coach. After waiting eight months, it's safe to say this new version suits him just fine. Barnes' Tennessee debut ended with a 'W' in the win column, as the Vols fought off a late surge to dispatch of Alabama-Huntsville, 96-83, in the team's only exhibition game before the regular season.
The matchup showed flashes of what Vols fans can hope to expect this season, both good and bad, as Tennessee builds on a 16-16 record from last year. Kevin Punter facilitated from the point well, ending the game with 25 points and five assists. Armani Moore proved to be the opportunistic creator of buckets that Barnes promised he would, notching 29 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double.
"We know that we're going to play a lot through Kevin and Armani," Barnes said. "Defensively, we weren't very good, but they had a lot to do with that. They are very well-coached."
Tennessee also showed what can happen when it gets hot behind the arc and, in the second half, the problems that come when that hot streak cools. The Vols knocked down 10 3-pointers in the first half, including three from Moore, to take a commanding 62-41 lead into halftime. But Tennessee's streak was stopped in the second half when the team connected on just 3-of-14 from behind the arc to end the game with 36 attempted 3-pointers.
"There will be nights when we take that many," Barnes said. "I'd be surprised if we don't average between 26-30 (3-pointers a game), somewhere around there."
After making quick work of the Chargers in the first half, Tennessee struggled defensively after fatigue set in late. Punter and Moore combined for 64 minutes alone, and a lack of developed depth helped allow Alabama-Huntsville back into the game. The Vols' post players combined for just 8 points and 14 rebounds accompanied by 9 fouls, exacerbating the problems down low for a team that was outscored 38-32 in the paint.
"We've got to guard better. We knew that would be a challenge with this group because we don't have a rim protector," Barnes said. "We got tired. We've got to figure out the rotation a little bit more."
Tennessee outrebounded UAH 45-36 and shot 45 percent from the field in the win. The Vols now have a week to prepare for the season opener at home against UNC-Asheville.
"This is a good win," Barnes said. "This time of year, you look around at what happens in college basketball ... these games aren't as easy as people think."
Robert Hubbs is still nursing a groin injury that limited him in practice in recent weeks, but Hubbs was able to play Friday and turned in a solid performance. The junior logged 27 minutes, recording 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting to go along with five rebounds and one assist.
"I don't think he's back 100 percent," Barnes said. "I thought he took a couple bad shots ... I thought for a guy that hadn't practice that much for a couple of weeks, we missed him a couple of times."
Freshman Shembari Phillips was slated to see his first game action of the season in the exhibition, but time mismanagement prevented him from making his debut. Phillips was late for the team's pregame shootaround and was promptly benched for the night by his head coach.
"That will be a great lesson for him," Barnes said. "I don't know how you could be late for your first game as a freshman. You get here, but we knew by the time he showed up he wasn't going to play."
Kasongo Partially Cleared
Freshman Ray Kasongo faced NCAA clearance issues this week when he was ruled eligble for practice but not competition. Tennessee is still working with the NCAA to make Kasongo fully eligble, but the 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward was cleared to participate in the exhibition.
"He didn't even know he was going to play until probably a couple of hours before the game," Barnes said. "He did some things. He's still a little antsy. He takes his eye off the ball and dunked the ball badly, took his eye off of it. Defensively he ... got to learn to move his feet around to kind of bang people and push them around."
Kasongo ended the night with two points and one rebound in three minutes.