KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kevin Punter scored a career-high 31 points and put Tennessee ahead for good in the final two minutes Friday as the Volunteers outlasted UNC Asheville 82-78 to begin the latest chapter of Rick Barnes’ coaching career.
Punter sank two free throws with 1:48 left to break a 72-all tie. Robert Hubbs then blocked a Will Weeks shot, triggering a fastbreak that led to Punter’s layup on the other end of the floor with 1:21 remaining.
Hubbs landed awkwardly after making the block and was on the floor for a few minutes before being helped to midcourt and carried to the locker room. Barnes said afterward Hubbs was merely dealing with a cramp.
Barnes, who now has 605 career wins, made his Tennessee debut and became the Volunteers’ third coach in as many seasons. Barnes was fired by Texas in March despite earning 16 NCAA Tournament bids in 17 seasons there.
Hubbs finished with 18 points for Tennessee. Armani Moore added 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Weeks scored 25, Kevin Vannatta had 17 and Sam Hughes had 13 for UNC Asheville to help the Bulldogs erase a 10-point, second-half deficit.
Tennessee’s victory wasn’t secure until Punter scored the game’s final points by sinking a pair of free throws with 7.4 seconds left.
UNC Asheville’s ability to stay close underscored the challenges facing Barnes in his first season at Tennessee. The Vols lack size and must replace Josh Richardson, who earned all-Southeastern Conference honors as a senior last season.
Barnes is taking over for Donnie Tyndall, who was dismissed in March after Tennessee officials correctly determined the NCAA would rule he had committed major violations during his two-year tenure at Southern Mississippi.
Barnes began Tennessee’s new era by reaching back to the program’s past. The Vols ran onto the court through a giant metal “T,” reviving a pregame tradition that former Tennessee coach Ray Mears started in the 1960s and that continued into Buzz Peterson’s tenure in the early 2000s.
UNC Asheville: This marked the 10th time UNC Asheville has faced Tennessee, with all the meetings coming since 1997-98. UNC Asheville is 0-10 against Tennessee, but six of the games had single-digit margins.
Tennessee: Ray Kasongo didn’t play due to what athletic department spokesman Tom Satkowiak described as an amateurism issue that preceded the 6-foot-8 sophomore’s enrollment. Satkowiak said the NCAA ruled that Kasongo must sit out a game and pay $300 in restitution before playing with the Vols. Kasongo, a sophomore from College of Southern Idaho, signed with Tennessee in April.
UNC Asheville visits Western Carolina on Sunday.
Tennessee is at Georgia Tech on Monday.
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