For nearly all but the closing moments of Friday night's match-up with ETSU, Tennessee looked dangerously close to spending Christmas stewing over a loss to another small, in-state school. That catastrophe was avoided by the slimmest of margins thanks the late arrival of some stingy defense and an impromptu offensive outburst from Trae Golden in the final 5:30 of the Vols' 66-63 win.
Golden entered the game as the Vols' leading scorer (13.5 ppg) but had struggled of late. A broken nose suffered a week ago probably hasn't helped matters, but prior to tonight he had failed to hit double digits in any of the last three games while hitting just 6-of-25 from the floor in that span.
The first 34 minutes and change of the ETSU game strongly suggested that Golden's struggles would persist through the holidays, but his play, and the Vols fortunes, took a dramatic turn at a most fortuitous time.
Golden scored nine of his 11 points in the final 5:30 as the Vols fought back from a 59-51 deficit that frankly, looked more than a little secure for the visitors.
All told he had a direct hand in 13 of Tennessee's last 15 points in the game. In addition to his nine points in the frenetic close, Golden also had an assist, a steal and crucial three-point play that brought the Vols to within one at 59-58 with 3:21 left in the game.
For a sophomore who is 11 games in as a starter and still trying to learn what it takes to run a team and while also looking for his own offense, it was an uplifting sequence of events.
"Words can't explain how good that felt to come through at the end. When I hit that little floater that felt like a Christmas present," Golden said of getting the comeback run started. "I was just so happy to hit that shot. Sometimes when you're in a slump you just need to get that first one to fall to get yourself going. After that it felt good, I'm just so happy we got that win. We needed it.
Cuonzo Martin always talks a great deal about his desire for his players to 'play with confidence' on the floor. Golden had admittedly had a difficult time doing that in the midst of his struggles and there was probably no one in the building who expected him to take over in the last five minutes of tonight's game.
With the possible exception of Martin.
"Coach Martin really trusted me at the end of the game. It's not rocket science to say that I've been in a slump lately with my shot. He pulled me aside and told me they needed me to step up right now. I just tried to make some plays on defense, lead the offense and make plays for my teammates," Golden said of what advice he got from his head coach.
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
After Thursday night's huge news, that five-star forward Jarnell Stokes was on his way to Knoxville, there's been plenty of buzz about the second half of the season and Stokes' potential role in it.
Martin was able to address that tantalizing subject after Friday night's game and clear up some of the questions about when Stokes can actually get on the floor.
His situation as a mid-term enrollee in basketball is unique to say the least, and it was previously though that Stokes couldn't practice or play until he began classes on Jan. 11.
Martin indicated that there's a good possibility Stokes can start getting to know his teammates earlier than that though.
"He will be eligible as soon as everything goes through the (NCAA) Clearinghouse," Martin said, adding that there's no exact date, though it's reasonable to think that could come within the next week.
The biggest concern on the minds of most fans is not when Stokes will practice, but when can they expect to see Martin's most impressive accomplishment since taking the job on the floor in an actual game.
The head coach wouldn't be pinned down on exactly when that might happen, though he did try to temper expectations to some degree.
"For me as a coach, it's making sure he's healthy enough to play, more than anything. You're talking about a guy who hasn't played a lot of five-on-five ball since an AAU tournament in August or July. Now all of a sudden, when you're playing at an elite level against this type of competition, what you expect to happen doesn't always happen like that," Martin said of the challenge Stokes will face.
"It's just one day at a time. We've talked about this for a long time. As far as if he plays, when he plays, the timetable, it's just how his body is conditioned. Is he ready to go? The most important thing is him being healthy and ready to play because he knows as well as I do that he has to fit in with the team."
Martin praised Stokes attitude, calling him 'an elite player that doesn't necessarily act like one,' citing his diligent work ethic and team-first mindset. He added that Stokes had asked the coaching staff for the phone number of every player on the team so that he could personally start reaching out to his teammates and start the relationship-building process in earnest.
On the downside for Tennessee tonight, the Vols once again showed themselves to be susceptible to getting hurt on the offensive glass.
Despite starting only one player 6-foot-7 or taller ETSU owned the offensive boards and nearly walked away with a win because of the extra possessions created as a result. The Bucs outrebounded the Vols 34-27 on the night and enjoyed a huge 17-7 advantage on the offensive glass.
Martin see any secrets to their success.
"I think it was more about our guys not making an assertive effort to put bodies on somebody as opposed to those guys penetrating and us being out of position or anything like that," Martin said, refusing to let his players off the hook. "It seemed like we were always a step slow as far as crashing the glass. Even the times when we got there and jumped, I thought we were a step slow."
The Vols other familiar Achilles heel, turnovers, was a story of two halves tonight. It was a real issue in the first half with Tennessee enduring 10 miscues. They cut that in half in the second half with only five though, and that proved to be pivotal.
Additionally, even when Tennessee did turn it over, they did a much better job of getting back on defense and setting up in an organized fashion. They also did their best job of the season in maximizing the opponent's mistakes. ETSU only managed to convert 15 Tennessee turnovers into 10 points while the Vols turned the Buc's 12 turnovers into 22 points. That turned out to have a huge impact on the outcome.
Another recent issue, which has happened in each of the last three games, has been the team's tendency to fall behind by double-digits in the first half. Tennessee was able to overcome it tonight and on Tuesday against UNC Asheville, but not at Charleston in a loss.
As evidenced by six-straight defensive stops in the final five minutes against ETSU, the Vols are capable of cranking it up on occasion, but the habit of doing it for mere portions of the game will almost certainly cost them down the road.
"It's just our focus and that's on the players," Kenny Hall said of the problem. "Our focus level was higher at the end of the game, or really where it needs to be. That was a crucial time in the game and we knew exactly what we needed to do. We had to get stops if we wanted to come back, and that's what we did. That all started with our defense."
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