JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — Rick Barnes thinks big, even if he has the smallest and most inexperienced team in the SEC, and on Thursday night it paid off.
The Vols (7-5) beat East Tennessee State (9-3) by a 72-68 count before a sold-out and rowdy Freedom Hall crowd of 6,149. And they did it by staring down the older, more accomplished home team down the stretch.
“I think the schedule we’ve played has helped us,” said Barnes, whose team played Top 25 teams Wisconsin and Oregon at the Maui Invitational in November leading up to a 73-71 loss at North Carolina on Dec. 11 and an 86-76 defeat to unbeaten Gonzaga in Nashville last Sunday.
“We wanted to play a hard schedule, and we’ve learned from it,” Barnes said. “I”m happy for our guys. I’ve been hard on them, and I’ll stay hard on them. But I can see in front of my face, they’re starting to figure it out.”
There were seven lead changes and four ties over the final 10 minutes, both teams leaving all of their efforts on the floor in a loosely officiated contest.
Barnes knew in-state bragging rights were on the line, and after opening this season with a home loss to Southern Conference favorite Chattanooga, there was pressure to beat ETSU.
“It really was a big win,” Barnes said. “East Tennessee State is a talented team, and I told the guys coming in that they were as talented as some teams in the SEC.
“Shembari Phillips, in the second half, was really good, and then Grant (Williams had the blocked shots.”
Barnes made it clear he has no interest in playing mid-major, in-state moving forward, preferring more of a national schedule.
That philosophy certainly paid off against the Bucs.
Junior Detrick Mostella — who had a team-high 17 points in the Vols’ 76-67 win over East Tennessee last year — was again on fire, leading UT with 25 points.
Mostella had the final 13 points of the first half as Tennessee build a 32-23 halftime lead, and he came through with a pair of free throws and a jumper in the final 1 1/2 minutes on Thursday.
The 6-foot-1 Mostella also had seven rebounds.
“He’s better when he rebounds the ball and gets into the game,” Barnes said. “Hearing our guys before I stepped into the huddle, it was amazing how they were talking to each other, we hadn’t had that all year.
“It’s a sign of where we need to go.”