One shot speaks volumes for Vols in win over ETSU

One shot spoke volumes about the state of Tennessee’s basketball team as the Vols held off a determined instate mid-major on Tuesday night in a situation coaches dread—the pre-Christmas trap game.

The last game before a team embarks on a break for the holidays is scary enough, given the commonly held belief that players might be thinking ahead to a little rest and relaxation at home and not focused on the task at hand. Throw in the fact the opponent was East Tennessee State—a team that has come into Thompson-Boling Arena a couple of times over the years and beaten the Vols and owns a win at Georgia Tech this season—and the degree of difficulty jumps up a couple of notches.

And then there was this: the Buccaneers are coached by Steve Forbes, the former Tennessee assistant to Bruce Pearl and unfortunate victim when the school had to clean house after it was revealed Pearl misled NCAA investigators looking into a minor rules violation. To his credit, Forbes said the game wasn’t personal, and he didn’t use his firing and subsequent one-year show-cause penalty to motivate his players. But Forbes did want to win, and with less than four minutes to play and the score tied at 67, the game was in the Bucs’ grasp.

That’s where that shot, a 3-pointer from the right corner by Tennessee sophomore guard Detrick Mostella, comes in. The obvious benefit was it provided Tennessee some much-needed separation and the impetus to pull away for a 75-67 victory that wasn’t as matter-of-fact as the score might suggest. But Mostella’s dagger was revealing, an illustration of at least three signs of progress for a team that has often been outmanned during the first month of this season, facing a schedule ranked No. 3 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index that has taken it from coast to coast, all while trying to learn the system of new coach Rick Barnes.

  • Mostella can do more than jump over 7-footers to win dunking contests. When former coach Donnie Tyndall signed the 6-foot-1 Mostella, a hyper-athletic former four-star high-school prospect who had previously committed to Oklahoma State and Pittsburgh, there was hope he could play point guard. He couldn’t, nor could he defend at the SEC level, limiting his playing time to 11.7 minutes per game as a freshman and 14.3 this season before Tuesday night’s breakout performance.

The 3-pointer was only the most obvious of Mostella’s contributions while logging a career-high 27 minutes. He led the Vols in scoring with 17 points, handed out four assists against a single turnover and, finally, played defense well enough to stay on the floor.

Mostella’s big game had its origins in the Vols’ 94-86 loss at Butler on Dec. 12, during which Mostella played just three minutes and his stat line looked like a lopsided binary code—all zeroes.

“After the Butler game, I told him, ‘You’re really at the crossroads right here,’ ” Barnes said. “You’ve come a long way, and I think it’s really going to be somewhat of a defining moment in your career. You’re going to buck up right here and decide you’re going to compete.’ He came out, and he hasn’t had a bad practice since the Butler game.”

Nor has Mostella had a bad game since Butler. It started with a six-point, four-rebound, one-assist effort in a win over FAU. And then, before the Vols played at Gonzaga, one of Mostella’s teammates gave Barnes an earful.

“Before the Gonzaga game,” Barnes said, “right before the team went out on the floor, Armani [Moore] came into where I was standing and he said, ‘Coach, I’m telling you. Detrick’s ready to play. He’s ready to play.’”

Moore was right. Looking like he belonged, truly belonged, on a power conference roster for perhaps the first time in his brief career, Mostella delivered 13 points in 13 minutes, draining a couple of 3s. That performance begat his heroic efforts against the Bucs, and portends to similar contributions down the road.

“He’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” Barnes said. “But the fact is, he’s really trying. He’s trying as hard as he can defensively. We’ve gotten on him about his shooting, because he doesn’t practice the way he gets up his shot in the game. The last week and a half, his whole mindset in practice is what’s helped him come out and play the way he’s playing.”

After the game, Mostella talked as though a light had finally come on, his conversion to Barnes’ philosophy nearing completion.

“I feel like it is all about buying in to the defensive end,” Mostella said. “I know the offense will come if I play good defense.”

  • Kevin Punter is making the transition from scorer to point guard. Make no mistake, for the remainder of his all-too-brief career at Tennessee, the former junior college All-American is going to be a scoring point. Against ETSU, foul trouble ended a streak not seen in Knoxville for more than a decade—Punter had scored at least 20 points in seven straight games. Ron Slay, en route to SEC player-of-the-year honors, did the deed eight games in a row in 2003.

Punter’s scoring is vital on a team that needs to generate all the points it can get. But scoring point guards, even the most experienced of them, always wage a war between their ears—knowing when to seek their own shot, and knowing when to facilitate for others.

Along with Moore, Punter has done everything he can to put this team on his shoulders, but sometimes, that has made him too predictable. Opposing defenses know what’s coming, and on occasion, Punter has forced the issue and tossed up a contested shot when a pass would have better served his team.

That’s hardly Punter’s fault; before this season, he’d never played the point, but he’s taken over the job for the common good. In the ETSU game, when Punter had the ball in his hands and the score was tied, the Bucs could have reasonably assumed he was headed to the rack, but instead he drew the defense and whipped a pass to a wide-open Mostella, who drained the biggest shot of his career so far.

“I think we played as a team, as opposed to [Punter] putting his head down, when they took the lead,” Barnes said. “He and Armani are competitors, but they’ve taken tough shots. … The last couple games, when we’ve needed something, KP hasn’t made that pass. Tonight, he did.

“I thought that was a big thing. We kept saying that. We’ve got to drive it. We’ve got to get good shots. It’s hard to score around the basket. People think it’s easy. It’s really not. That was really as good a play as a point guard can make in that situation.”

And that pass wasn’t the only sign of Punter’s improvement as a manager of games. Limited to 28 minutes by foul trouble, he nevertheless scored 13 points, grabbed eight rebounds, handed out a game-high five assists and didn’t commit a turnover.

  • All that high-level competition has made the Vols aware of what it’s going to take to survive. Without much size and without an experienced point guard controlling pace and distributing, Tennessee has had to increasingly rely on its defense. Suffice it to say that realization hasn’t come quickly enough for Barnes. But on Tuesday night, when the Vols were in danger of a critical loss to a team from the No. 16-rated conference in the country, they hunkered down after Mostella’s 3 gave them a lift and held the Bucs scoreless in the final 3:51.

“I thought it was a really good game for us, the way we won it, hopefully in the long run, because we won a game when we were down in a close game,” Barnes said. “I told the guys all year, we’re going to be down, we’re going to be in close games. When it gets down to winning time, that’s when we’ll find out what we are made of.”

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