Kevin Punter made the pass and screamed out to the basketball gods, almost begging them to answer him.
Tennesse watched as its double-digit first half lead over East Tennessee State had been slowly whittled away, and with the game tied at 67 with less than a minute to go, Punter swung a pass out to Detrick Mostella, at the tail end of the best game of his career, who put up a corner 3-pointer for the potential lead.
As the shot went up, all Punter could do was ask.
"That was just a great read by KP," Barnes said. "He made a great pass, and as soon as he passed it I heard him yell out 'please!' It went in. It got answered."
Mostella buried the attempt, tying a career high with 17 points and putting Tennessee up by three points to ultimately seal a tough 76-67 win over the Buccaneers Tuesday night. The victory put Tennessee (6-5) in a good position to close out the non-conference home schedule undefeated with one game remaining and showed the Vols have what it takes to fight through adversity to find a win.
It didn't come without some hiccups.
"I really felt like all my shots (were) good tonight," Mostella said. "It's just a confidence thing. I really just played with a lot of confidence, from the last game (vs. FAU) and the game before that (vs. Gonzaga)."
The Vols were finally able to close out a late rally after losing efforts against Butler and Gonzaga on the road. The difference this time hinged on the team playing cohesive offensively instead of Punter, who finished the game with 13 points and eight rebounds, simply trying to take over.
“I think we played as a team, as opposed to [Kevin Punter Jr.] putting his head down when they took the lead," Barnes said. "He and Armani [Moore] are competitors, but they’ve taken tough shots. You can’t fault guys for being competitive. You’ve got to have that. What we’ve also talked about is that we’re going to have to get competitive on the other end and get some stops.
Moore recorded his sixth career double-double with 14 points and 12 boards in the win in a smaller lineup that at times featured five guards.
"You can't really limit our team," Moore said. "I feel like that's really where we have an advantage. We've got a lot of guys who are capable of doing a lot of different things."
Five Guard Lineup
Rick Barnes toyed with a five guard lineup at times that ended up working rather well. A lineup of Kevin Punter, Armani Moore, Devon Baulkman, Detrick Mostella and Robert Hubbs left Tennessee without a true big man on the floor, but a quicker, more fiesty roster that Barnes had practiced with leading up to the game.
"We wanted to really spend time doing that when we had that long break," Barnes said. "That was something we knew we wanted to do at times, but when [Robert] Hubbs had his surgery we didn’t get a chance to spend anytime with it. We’ve dummy offensed it with those guys out there. They know what they’re doing on the offensive end. In terms of actually doing it, we haven’t really got to go live with it. That’s something we had hoped to do."
To combat the size differential, Tennessee went into a zone to help Punter, who stayed in foul trouble in the second half with three fouls, and turned in a solid performance.
"I think when five guards are out there, we can defend," Devon Baulkman said. "They might have a height advantage, but we can also be out in transition. We can be running, everybody running their lanes and be a good fast break team."
Devon Baulkman got the start Tuesday and didn't let it go to waste. The senior turned in an encouraging eight points and four rebounds in a stout defensive display.
"He is a guy that we’ve said from day one, we’ve got to have a guy that has a defensive mentality, that really wants to do that," Barnes said. "You’ve got to have a guy that does that, but also will go get big offensive rebounds. You go back, and when he’s played his best, he’s really done that on the offensive boards."
Baulkman only recorded on offensive board in the game, but he was able to slow ETSU down during stretches and showed off his smooth stroke in the process.
"He’s a guy that’s more than just a spot-up shooter," Barnes said. "He can really affect a game on the other end if he’s willing to do it consistently. We need that."
The Gulf Coast State College transfer was a key cog to the five guard lineup Barnes trotted out down the stretch, proving that Tennessee doesn't have to be big to win games.
"It feels real good, because we were finally able to close one game," Baulkman said. "We lost to Butler, (Gonzaga), all these close games. We probably feel like we can close a game. This game really helped us out a lot, winning a game before Christmas break. It gives us a lot of confidence."