By Steve Williams

The first phase of Rick Barnes’ first season as men’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee is in the books.

The Vols pulled out a 74-69 win over Tennessee State in a Tuesday afternoon game last week in front of a holiday crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena. The victory gave UT a 7-5 record against one of the nation’s toughest pre-conference schedules.

With football still being played, it was pretty much the first time I had seen Tennessee in action this season. I came away impressed by its exciting style of play and all-out effort. It’s easy to see why Barnes has repeatedly said, “We really like these guys.”

Most of the comments I’ve heard from fans also have been positive. This team may lack height, but they play with a lot of heart. You can get them down, but keeping them down hasn’t been easy.

The Vols got off to a slow start against Tennessee State, but a flurry of 3-point shots, including four in a row by Kevin Punter Jr., helped UT get even, before TSU regained a 43-36 lead at halftime.

The 9-4 Tigers, who had won seven of their past eight games, stayed ahead for much of the second half, but the Vols’ defensive work in crunch time keyed a second straight comeback win. (The Vols had rallied past East Tennessee State 76-67 the week before).

An interception led to a Detrick Mostella layup that cut the TSU lead to one with 4:20 on the clock. Then the Vols hit the floor on the defensive end a second straight time and were rewarded by the possession arrow pointing their way. The hustle came at a critical juncture in the contest.

A Mostella drive in the lane again cut the Tigers’ lead to one and Tennessee quickly called timeout.

Armani Moore’s rebound basket put Tennessee ahead for good, 67-66, with 2:24 left. With the Tigers unable to answer, Mostella hit a floater and Punter scored on a drive plus one to extend the lead to six (72-66) with 1:03 remaining.

TSU cut the gap to three, but Punter got an offensive rebound and made two clutch free throws with 15.1 seconds left to put Tennessee up by five.

Punter finished with a game-high 23 points, including four of six 3-pointers. As a team, the Vols connected on 9 of 22 treys (41 percent).

Mostella, a sophomore, continued to blossom offensively as he tallied 16 points, including 12 in the second half.

Moore’s stat sheet was full, with eight points, 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks.

The Vols made 10 steals in the battle – maybe the biggest stat of the game.

In the post-game interview session, Moore said Tennessee needs to get off to a better start but did execute better offensively in the second half.

Coach Barnes also said his team’s start was “disappointing,” and early offensive turnovers were “uncharacteristic” of how his team had been playing in previous games.

“But at the end of the game, when we really needed it, Armani changed the whole game,” pointed out Barnes.

Heading into Southeastern Conference play (the Vols were scheduled to play Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers this past Saturday), Barnes noted his team, in its last two non-conference outings, had “closed the game and that’s a good sign.”

Phase II of the season (SEC regular season games) continues this week with a visit from rival Florida at 7 o’clock Wednesday night.

“There are a number of different seasons during a season,” said Barnes.

Tennessee’s defensive play is the biggest concern and area that needs improvement, he added. The Vols took a step in that direction against TSU.

The Vols are unbeaten in seven home games this year and have been competitive in all of their losses, particularly the last two at Butler and against Gonzaga in Seattle.

After Phase I, Barnes said all of the team’s goals are still attainable. It has the makings of a very interesting season.