The Volunteers survived a sluggish performance Tuesday while coming from behind to beat Tennessee State 74-69 in their last game before beginning Southeastern Conference competition. They realize a similar effort won't suffice in most league games.
''We've got to get a whole lot better,'' Tennessee forward Armani Moore said. ''I think today we came out and we did enough to win the game, but we didn't do enough to be successful in SEC play. We've got to get way better than that.''
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Kevin Punter scored 23 points and capped a critical 9-0 run with a 3-point play as Tennessee rallied late to beat an instate opponent for the second straight game. The Vols beat East Tennessee State 76-67 on Dec. 22 by scoring the game's final nine points.
Tennessee (7-5) trailed by as many seven points in the second half before Moore put the Volunteers ahead for good 67-66 on a putback of Punter's missed 3-point attempt with 2:26 remaining. Detrick Mostella's basket and Punter's 3-point play extended the lead to 72-66.
Wayne Martin got Tennessee State (9-4) within 72-69 on a 3-point play with 49 seconds left. Punter clinched the victory by sinking two free throws with 15 seconds remaining.
''I think they picked up their defensive pressure a little bit and caused us to get out of our comfort zone,'' Tennessee State coach Dana Ford said. ''They defended us better and maybe took away some options we'd been getting most of the time.
Mostella had 16 points for Tennessee. Moore added eight points, 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes credited Moore for turning the game around with his defensive intensity.
Martin scored 19 points, Keron DeShields had 13 points and Marcus Roper had 10 for Tennessee State.
Tennessee had won each of its previous five meetings with Tennessee State by at least 16 points, including a 67-46 decision last season. The Tigers were much more competitive this time.
Tennessee State closed the first half on a 10-1 run to own a 43-36 lead at the intermission as the Vols gave up too many easy baskets and failed to take care of the ball.
''At halftime I told our team there's no doubt who's the better-coached team, who's the better team,'' Barnes said. ''I really think the best team didn't win today.''
Tennessee won because it was the best team for the last few minutes, if not for the majority of the game.
The Vols will need much more complete efforts from now on.
''If we don't figure out post defense and we give away baskets like we did today, we're not going to be very good because conference play changes everything,'' Barnes said. ''It's here. It's on now. The key will be how much better we can get, because we've got to get a whole lot better.''
Tennessee State: The Tigers already have nearly twice as many victories as they produced each of the last two seasons. Tennessee State went 5-26 last season and 5-25 in 2013-14.
Tennessee: The Vols improved their home record to 7-0. They haven't won away from Thompson-Boling Arena this season.
MOSTELLA SIZZLES, ALEXANDER STRUGGLES
Mostella continued his recent surge. After failing to score in double figures in Tennessee's first nine games, he has averaged 15.3 points over the Vols' last three contests.
But the Vols didn't get much from Kyle Alexander in his second career start. The freshman forward played just four minutes and had no points or rebounds.
Barnes said Alexander didn't compete hard enough.
''He played four minutes – and probably played two more than he should have,'' Barnes said.
Punter has scored over 20 points in eight of his last nine games. …. Tennessee outrebounded Tennessee State 39-30 and outscored the Tigers 16-4 in second-chance points. Tennessee State entered the day with a plus-5.6 rebound margin.
Tennessee State: At Southeast Missouri on Saturday.