The Vols' confidence took a hit when they struggled to subdue lightly regarded East Tennessee State last Saturday. Tennessee built a big early lead, then saw the Bucs go on a 16-0 run that shifted the momentum. The Vols trailed 58-52 five minutes into the second half before rallying for a 93-88 triumph.
As a result, Tennessee (12-2) should be fully focused on Mississippi State (9-4) after nearly suffering a humbling home-floor defeat at the hands of the scrappy Bucs.
As junior guard Chris Lofton recalls: "When they made that big run, I thought to myself, ‘This is a good thing. We put this team in position but they're not going to quit."
Lofton concedes that Tennessee's uninspired performance against ETSU probably would've resulted in a loss if the Vols had been facing an SEC foe.
"I think so," he said, adding that the Vols might have lost anyway "except we made some key free throws down the stretch and got some stops at the end."
Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl recently grumbled that his team hadn't gotten a scare all year. That is no longer the case. The Vols got a big-time scare from ETSU, and apparently learned a valuable lesson from the experience.
"You learn that, no matter who your opponent is, you've got to come out and play with energy and passion every night," Lofton said.
Senior forward Dane Bradshaw echoes those sentiments, adding that the problems caused by ETSU's trapping defense reminded the Vols of their own vulnerability.
"We'll learn from it," he said. "Maybe we'll have to see more traps. With the spacing we have on offense, we can do better with it. We just didn't execute as players."
Junior guard JaJuan Smith readily admits that ETSU gave Tennessee a scare but he isn't quite as philosophical about it as his teammates.
"I don't think it's never good to have a close game," he said with a laugh. "But it was a wakeup call that let us know anybody can beat anybody on a given night, so we've got to come ready to play every night."