After nine tries, Rick Barnes finally left an arena outside of Knoxville with a smile on his face. It wasn't always easy, but Tennessee (9-8, 2-3) was able to close out their first road win of the season with an 85-80 win over Mississippi State Saturday in Starkville, snapping an eight-game losing streak away from Thompson-Boling Arena. Despite being outscored in the paint 34-18 and allowing big man Gavin Ware to end the day with 21 points, the Vols put him in foul trouble early and didn't let their size disadvantage stop them from popping 10 3-pointers to secure the win.
Why was Barnes' squad finally able to hang on to grab its third SEC victory, especially with senior Armani Moore out with an ankle injury? Let's take a look:
1. Detrick's Day
Moore's absence left a noticebale production hole in Tennessee's roster, and someone would have to step up in his place for the Vols to win this game. The versatile senior averages 12 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2 blocks per game, so even when he's not scoring, he can affect the game in plenty of ways off the ball. The Vols had to have someone step up to fill the void. Detrick Mostella did just that, turning in his best performance of the season with a game-high 24 points in 8-of-17 shooting from the field. Mostella was absolutely feeling it for a stretch and knocked down five 3-pointers to
2. Punter Pride
What a day for Kevin Punter. The senior from Brooklyn played in all 40 minutes and it looked like somebody had drenched his uniform in a bucket of cold water at the end of this one. Punter carried Tennessee for much of the first half, finishing with 23 points and five assists leading the offense. He's the unabashed leader of this team and it showed as he rallied them from letting a first half lead slowly slip away after the break. This is a performance he'll remember for a long time.
3. Holding Strong
Tennessee clung to its lead rather tightly for most of the second half as Mississippi State stormed back into the game after trailling 38-27 at halftime. The Vols have led at the half in all five of their SEC games this season but weren't able to seal the deal in three of those contests. This time, Barnes' squad refused to collapse. While the Vols were outscored after the break 48-42, they made up for it with timely baskets that interrupted the building Mississippi State momentum and kept MSU at bay.
4. Trey Day
It looks like the Vols may have stolen some of Georgia's magic fairy 3-point dust from Wednesday's game. Tennessee unleashed a barrage of treys on the Bulldogs which built a lead it would not relinquish, including six first half 3-pointers that helped it collect an 11-point halftime lead. With a lack of post presence compared to Mississippi State, knocking down 3's was a must.
5. TO's? No
Just three days after turning the ball over 13 times in a loss to Georgia, Tennessee mostly took care of the ball against MSU, limiting itself to just eight turnovers in the game. The Vols have been plagued by some ugly, ugly turnovers this season and they mostly avoided them in the five-point win over the Bulldogs. Playing clean basketball is a must for this smaller, growing team, and they were able to do just that.