Rick Barnes' debut at Tennessee wasn't much unlike the path he took to get to Knoxville from Texas this spring. After experiencing some rocky and uncertain moments for a good portion of the journey, in the end, Barnes was able to do what he has been doing for nearly two decades: put smiles on the faces of those wearing orange.
Tennessee survived a late-game scare from UNC Asheville for a season-opening, 82-78, win over the Bulldogs Friday in Thompson-Boling Arena, notching Barnes his first win as a Vol. Behind a career-high 31 points from point guard Kevin Punter, Tennessee eeked out a four-point win over a tenacious Bulldog squad that outrebounded the Vols 36-33 and nearly secured the upset before clutch free throw shooting down the stretch closed things out for Barnes' team. The Vols knocked down 4-of-5 free throws in the last 37 seconds to hold on for a victory.
"Until we can prove that we can guard somebody, that's going to happen to us," Barnes said of his team's close win. "The good thing, from our point of view, is that we were in a game near the end, and I felt the last couple of minutes were really the first time we got competitive on the defensive end."
It didn't look to be a nail-biter early, as Tennessee jumped out to a 7-0 lead behind five straight points by Punter. The senior, who secured his 31 points on 10-of-14 shooting, was the unmatched sparkplug for his team, creating opportunities from the point through steady facilitation and a stroke that rarely seemed to miss.
"I stay in attack mode for 40 minutes," Punter said. "I try not to let up for 40 minutes, and whatever the outcome is, is the outcome."
Tennessee took a narrow 34-33 lead into halftime in a game that saw eight lead changes and was tied 15 times. The Vols would go up by as many as 10 points with 12:55 to play, but UNC Asheville simply refused to die. The Bulldogs charged back to take a 71-69 lead before Tennessee hit 11 free throws in the last two minutes to ice the game. The Vols shot just 25 percent from behind the arc on the night in 16 attempts and were beaten on the offensive boards 14-9. Three of the Vols' starters (Kevin Punter, Armani Moore and Devon Baulkman) combined for just two rebounds in the win.
"We don't have an attitude of where we want to be known as a team that's going to be scrappy and break balls lose and, really, the pride you need" Barnes said. "We don't have that on the defensive end. Really, it's go to be, not just one guy or two guys, it's got to be everybody."
Armani Moore didn't put together his best statistical performance of his career, but the senior ended the night with a productive eight points, eight rebounds and six assists in his team's win. Center Derek Reese led the team with eight rebounds to go along with eight points and an assist.
"I think he could get 10 rebounds a night if he wanted to," Barnes said of Reese. "He's got to get some on the offensive end. We can't be a one-and-done offensive team."
Tennessee also suffered a scare from one of its key contributors in the second half. Robert Hubbs made a momentum-shifting block on a fast break by UNC Asheville's Will Weeks with less than two minutes left before crumpling to the floor in agony. Hubbs was carried off the court without putting any weight on his legs, but Barnes later said the injury was "just cramps." The junior did not return, ending his game with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
"Any time Hubbs holds himself or anything, I just get scared," Punter said. "He gets banged up a lot, so we always try and protect him as much as possible. A guy like that, we really need him, so we don't ever want him to be hurt or banged up."
Before the game was out of reach, Asheville intentionally fouled Jabari McGhee with 58 seconds left down 75-72. McGhee calmly strode to the line and knocked down the pair, giving his team a 77-72 lead it would not relinquish. The big man finished the game with nine points and six rebounds in just 17 minutes.
"The biggest play of the game was when they intentionally fouled him and made those two free throws," Barnes said. "I told him, ‘That was the play of the game.’ The fact that he put so much time changing his shot, he walked up there and was confident. He knocked them down."
A lacking defensive effort that led to 17 second-chance points for UNC Asheville wasn't enough to spoil Barnes' debut, and Tennessee eventually clawed out the win down the stretch. The team will see a quick turnaround as it heads to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech Monday, and at least one Vol believes the opener provided an eye-opening experience.
"We've got to be better," Punter said. "We've got to hold on more, we've got to be more solid defensively. A few possessions late, we weren't solid and it really hurt us ... It's a big lesson learned."