With Tennessee down 59-51 and 5:36 remaining Friday at Thompson-Boling Arena, Vol point guard Trae Golden knew he had to do something and do it fast. So, taking the inbounds pass, he raced upcourt and forced a spinning, off-balance 5-foot bank shot that had perhaps a one-in-10 chance of going in.
Incredibly, the ill-advised shot dropped, igniting a 15-4 finishing kick that turned the eight-point deficit into a dramatic 66-63 defeat of a stunned East Tennessee State squad.
Moral of story: Yes, Trae, there is a Santa Claus.
"When I hit that little runner ... that was my Christmas right there, man," Golden said.
He was only half-kidding. Mired in a dreadful slump, he went 6 for 25 from the field in Games 8, 9 and 10 combined ... 7 for 31 if you count his 1-for-6 start Friday night. Over the final 5:36, however, he was 3 for 3 from the floor and 3 for 3 from the foul line — producing nine points in the 15-4 finish.
And it all started with a wild shot that Michael Jordan in his prime might make 33 percent of the time.
"Sometimes that's what it takes when you're in a slump ... you just need that one shot to get yourself going," Golden said, literally beaming. "When that happened, it felt good, man. I'm just happy we got the win. That's the best Christmas present I could've gotten."
Golden finished with 11 points, all coming in the game's final 10 minutes. Teammate Kenny Hall also got the Christmas spirit late, playing his best basketball of the season over the final five minutes.
After Golden's acrobatic runner trimmed the 59-51 deficit to 59-53, Hall scored on a putback that whittled the gap to 59-55. After Golden produced a three-point play, Hall blocked an ETSU layup attempt, then dunked off a Golden assist to give Tennessee a 60-59 lead with exactly two minutes remaining. A Hall steal produced a Golden dunk and a 62-59 lead that stood up when Jordan McRae hit both ends of a one-and-one with 17.7 seconds left and Golden duplicated the feat with 7.9 seconds left.
Bucs standout Adam Sollazzo missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Golden (11 points, 6 assists, 2 turnovers) and Hall (11 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks) weren't the only heroes for the Big Orange. Cameron Tatum produced 13 points, 2 rebounds, an assist and a steal. He also proved to be the only Vol who could somewhat contain Sollazzo, a 6-foot-6 point guard who posted 19 points and 7 assists while playing all 40 minutes. Skylar McBee came off the bench to drain 4 of 6 shots from beyond the arc and added 12 points for the Vols, now 5-6.
Tommy Hubbard chipped in 18 points for ETSU, which also stands 5-6 on the young season.
Tennessee shot 56.5 percent (13 of 23) from the field in the second half and finished at 52.2 for the game. The Vols hit an excellent 42.1 percent (8 of 19) from 3-point range and a solid 76.9 percent (10 of 13) from the foul line. They committed 15 turnovers, however, and allowed ETSU to pull down 17 offensive rebounds.
The scrappy Bucs won the backboard battle 34-27 but shot just 40.7 percent from the field and 30.8 percent (4 of 13) from 3 against a hustling Vol defense. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin declined to praise the defensive effort except to note that it was "better than what it's been."
The Vol head man had plenty of praise for Golden, however, noting that "He stepped up big. That'll be good for him because I think he was pressing somewhat and his shot wasn't falling. He finally stepped up — made some big free throws, some big plays — and I think that was great for him to go home (for the holidays) with a level of confidence."
Oddly enough, Golden's two most recent outings saw him score all five of his points in Game 10 versus UNC Asheville in the final 3:41 and all 11 of his points in Game 11 versus ETSU in the final 9:18. That suggests his teammates are looking to their point guard in the clutch, no matter how poorly he might have played previously.
"I think they're all going to look for me to make a play, whether that's scoring or whatever," Golden said. "I think that just comes with the job. I try to step up when I can."
As for the 15-4 finishing kick that Golden spearheaded, Martin was understandably pleased with the grit his team showed in recording six consecutive stops during that stretch.
"I think it was digging deep more than anything," he said.
The poise Tennessee's players exhibited down the stretch probably can be traced to the poise they see from Tennessee's coaches.
"As a staff, we keep our composure, knowing the game's not over until the buzzer sounds," Martin said. "We got stops, got rebounds, made big plays and Trae pushed the ball. I think that's the biggest key. We don't show a lot of emotion as a staff in those situations, and the players feed off that energy, whether it's positive or negative."