Rick Barnes has been quick to admit that nothing will come easy for his Tennessee team this season as they adjust to his fast style of play and develop defensively. Never was he proven more right than on Thursday, when the Vols (2-1) scratched out a hard-fought come-from-behind win, 84-74, over Marshall (0-1) in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Nothing seemed to go right for Tennessee in the first half, but the Vols still clung to the Thundering Herd's coattails as they racked up a double-digit lead. But the disciplined Tennessee outfit put its head down, climbed back into the game and eventually pulled out a win.
"We have such a small room for error," Barnes said. "I think, right now, guys are still trying to figure out what they want to do instead of what we need to do as a team to win consistently. I told them they got themselves in that hole, but they found a way to get themselves out."
Armani Moore led the Vols with a career-high 20 points and eight rebounds, while Kevin Punter and Robert Hubbs III chipped in 19 in the win. Devon Baulkman provided a spark with 13 points, and Derek Reese accumulated 13 rebounds.
“(Devon) Baulk(man) was the guy who made the difference in the game," Barnes said. "His energy, flying around, coming up with some offensive rebounds."
Tennessee was forced to overcome a deficit that climbed as high as 16 points in the second half — the biggest Vols comeback since overcoming a 17-point hole against Vanderbilt in 2011.
The first half was a case study in what can happen when Rick Barnes' squad struggles offensively. Tennessee went just 3-of-11 from behind the arc and Kevin Punter didn't score his first buckets until there were 18.5 seconds left to play in the first half on a pair of free throws — Tennessee's only free throw attempts of the half. The Vols shot just 27 percent from 3-point range and turned it over seven times. Marshall took advantage of the sloppy play, building a 38-35 halftime lead behind 11 points and three 3-pointers from Justin Edmonds. Edmonds finished the game with 11 points.
Barnes' team answered with a 26-2 run punctuated by two Hubbs free throws with 9:38 to play. With 11:43 left to go, Tennessee managed an 11-0 run in just 45 seconds. The outpouring coupled with a Marshall cold streak lifted Tennessee ahead for good.
“We have to know who we are," Hubbs said. "Times will get bad sometimes, but we just have to keep our heads up and keep playing. We had to pick ourselves up a lot. The leaders, Armani [Moore] and KP [Punter], kept telling us that we have to find a spark because this was the wrong ballgame, so we found the spark and we just started playing off of that with our energy.”
Hubbs, who was battling an illness earlier in the week that limited his practice time, ended the game shooting 50 percent from the field on 14 attempts. Punter notched 17 of his 19 points in the second half, and the Vols knocked down 23-of-28 free throws down the stretch to hang on for the win.
"We were playing lethargic," Derek Reese said. "We knew we had come ready to play. If we do what we needed to do, we knew things were going to come back to our side."